HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

"Bitter Pill": Analysis of News Media's Coverage of So-Called Wonder Drugs

Trudy Lieberman has written an extremely interesting article, "Bitter Pill," for the Columbia Journalism Review, concerning today's phenomenon of a drug moving almost instantaneously from medical research to miracle cure through news media.  She comments that the news media often seem more interested in the "hype and hope" than in critically appraising new drugs on behalf of the public.  She says this problem has increased significantly due to the dramatic increase in direct-to-consumer advertising, which delivers higher ad revenues to media outlets.  Lieberman opines that the press too often is caught up in the same drug-industry marketing web that also ensnares doctors, academic researchers, even the FDA, leaving the public without a reliable watchdog. 

She illustrates this phenomenon with the example of Lunesta, a new sleeping pill.  Lieberman writes that Sepracor's CEO, Timothy Barberich, told analysts that insomnia is "one of the most prevalent and growing medical needs in our society," describing insomnia as under-recognized and under-treated.  They then began selling their drug Lunesta to the public with the help of the press.  Sepracor facilitated this media treatment by offering journalists sources to call, including those with financial links to Sepracor.  Liberman also points to the National Sleep Foundation's annual poll to promote National Sleep Awareness Week.  This year the poll got a substantial amount of news coverage, with at least 24 stories, while Sepracor was dispatching 1,250 sales reps to physician's offices to educate them about Lunesta, part of a $60 million marketing push. 

Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor-in-chief of The New England Journal of Medicine, says that "the public is being allowed to believe that drugs are safer and more effective than they really are... Journalists, as well as the public and physicians, have bought hook, line, and sinker the idea that these drugs are getting better."   Through her research published in the book, The Truth About the Drug Companies, she found that of the 415 drugs approved between 1998 and 2000, only 14% were truly innovative, 9% were drugs that had been modified in some way, and 77% were copies of medicines already on the market.   She says that the news media has been ignoring the middle ground between the pharmaceutical industry covered in the business pages or consumer health reporting in the health sections.   She urges that more attention be paid to the area of corporate marketing and sponsored scientific research that connects the bottom line to the latest "breakthrough."   The article also discusses the coverage of Vioxx and other cox 2 pain relievers, and how poorly the public was served by medical coverage of this "super aspirin." My research assistant, Lindley Bain, provided invaluable help with this post.  [tm]

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