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How effective are the drugs Pharma promotes most heavily?

Written by Diane Archer

A new study by Joel Lexchin in the Canadian Medical Association Journal finds that the overwhelming majority of drugs that pharmaceutical companies promote to doctors have little or no clinical benefits. For his research, Lexchin, a professor emeritus at York University in Canada, reviewed pharmaceutical company spending on marketing in Canada, through sales representations and journal advertisements. It makes you wonder how effective are the drugs Pharma promotes most heavily to consumers in the U.S.

Lexchin aimed to determine whether prescription drug promotion helps doctors make smart drug choices. To do so, he identified the 50 drugs that pharmaceutical companies invested most heavily in promoting over three years. He then used the findings of two independent review agencies to assess the therapeutic value of these drugs. Of the 42 drugs these agencies had reviewed, they found that ninety percent delivered little or no clinical benefit.

Lexchin concludes that meetings with drug company sales representatives and drug company advertisements in journals are not helpful in educating doctors about prescription drugs that deliver clinical benefits.

Tyler Greenway and Joseph Ross conducted a similar study of the 25 most heavily promoted drugs in the U.S., published in the BMJ. They looked at the 25 drugs associated with the largest payments to doctors and teaching hospitals. And, they found that these 25 most-promoted prescription drugs were less likely than top-selling and top-prescribed drugs to be “effective, safe, affordable, novel, and represent a genuine advance in treating a disease.” They recommend that physicians “should question the value of drugs being most heavily promoted by pharmaceutical manufacturers before prescribing them.”

While neither Lexchin nor Greenway and Ross looked at the efficacy of drugs promoted to consumers, their findings suggest that consumers should not assume that the prescription drugs Pharma heavily promotes are safe and effective. Whenever your doctor prescribes a drug, it would be wise to ask how long the drug has been on the market and what the data says about the drug’s safety and efficacy.

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