May 31, 2000
News Reports Containing Inaccuracies About New Drugs?
Have Potential to Harm
Statement of Sidney M. Wolfe, M.D., Director of Public Citizen s Health Research Group, Regarding?a New England Journal of Medicine Article and Editorial on Misleading News Articles About Drugs
The study published in the June 1, 2000, New England Journal of Medicine clearly documents that newspaper and television stories frequently overstated the benefits and understated the risks of three drugs used to prevent various diseases.
The potential damage done by such misleading information is similar to that done by the frequently misleading advertisements for drugs that are directed at physicians and, now, at patients as well. The decision by a physician to prescribe a drug based on an inaccurate assessment of benefits and risks can lead to deaths or injuries from adverse reaction. These deaths or injuries could
be prevented if accurate information were disseminated, because doctors might prescribe safer and/or more effective drugs.
Prescription drug advertising that fails to accurately describe benefits and risks can be stopped by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because it violates FDA laws and regulations.
However, news articles such as those studied for this article — often relying for interpretations of results on prestigious academic doctors who are paid by the pharmaceutical industry — are “regulated” only by the reporters who gather information about the topic and their editors.
Whenever a reporter is writing about such an important topic, that reporter should find out whether the “source” of the comment has a financial relationship with the company whose product is the focus of the article. The reporter also should ensure that at least one or more evaluations of the data come from a source without financial ties to the company.
The best reporters already do this and are therefore much less likely to become unwitting vehicles for what is thinly but cleverly disguised drug promotion.