Drug firms 'invent disease' to boost profits

By Wai Lang Chu

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Medicine, Irritable bowel syndrome

A new report has accused pharmaceutical companies of hyping up
diseases in an attempt to sell more drugs and boost profits.

The report claimed that the constant exaggeration of non-existent diseases and an over emphasis on mild problems was putting healthy people at risk.

Researchers from Newcastle University in Australia identified such ailments as Restless legs, Irritable bowel syndrome and even the Menopause as disorders that are made out to be more serious than they are.

David Henry and Ray Moynihan, the report's co-authors, highlighted different forms of what they termed as 'disease mongering,' which preyed on the fears of ordinary people.

They identified aspects of ordinary life, such as menopause, being medicalised; mild problems portrayed as serious illnesses, as had occurred in the drug-company-sponsored promotion of irritable bowel syndrome and risk factors, such as high cholesterol and osteoporosis, being framed as diseases.

The report, published in the >Public Library of Science Medicine​, illustrated the promotion of premenstrual dysphoric disorder to help sell a re-branded version of fluoxetine (rebranded from Prozac to Sarafem) as a case in point. Pharmaceutical giants Eli Lilly were the sponsors.

Considered by some as a serious psychiatric illness, premenstrual dysphoric disorder is regarded by others as a condition that does not exist.

"Disease-mongering is the selling of sickness that widens the boundaries of illness and grows the markets for those who sell and deliver treatments,"​ the report said.

"It is exemplified mostly explicitly by many pharmaceutical industry-funded disease awareness campaigns - more often designed to sell drugs than to illuminate or to inform or educate about the prevention of illness or the maintenance of health."

The researchers recommended as an initial step toward combating disease mongering at a health policy level, decision makers should promote a renovation in the way diseases were defined.

"Continuing to leave these definitions to panels of self-interested specialists riddled with professional and commercial conflicts of interest is no longer viable,"​ they concluded.

"As a priority, new panels should be assembled, free of commercial conflicts of interest, involving a much wider, and less self-interested, group of players, who would ultimately generate more credible information."

The pharmaceutical industry responded to the report, defending European standards to those of its US counterparts.

Richard Ley, of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, told the >BBC​, the research was centred on the US where the drugs industry had much more freedom to promote their products to the public.

"The way you can advertise is much more restricted in the UK so it is wrong to extrapolate it."

"Also, it is not right to say the industry invents diseases, we don't. It is up to doctors to decide what treatment to give people, we can't tell them,"​ he said.

Related topics: Preclinical Research

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