Drug companies accused of putting patients' lives at risk

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Patients' lives are being put at risk by the practices used by some drug companies to promote their products, medical experts warned MPs yesterday.

Patients' lives are being put at risk by the practices used by some drug companies to promote their products, medical experts warned MPs yesterday.

Many papers on new drugs published in respected journals such as the British Medical Journal and The Lancet were ghost written by drug company advisers, MPs on the Commons Health Select Committee were told. Drug companies also bombarded doctors with gifts. The pharmaceutical industry's code of practice on free gifts was broken "on a daily basis" but neither doctors nor drug companies admitted it.

One doctor revealed he had been offered a bribe of two years' salary not to publish research on the side effects of a new heart drug which ran "counter to the interests" of the company producing it.

The MPs were told that some senior medical consultants received consultancy fees from drug companies of more than £20,000 for a few hours' work. Experts could also earn more than £4,000 an hour for extolling the virtues of new drugs to other doctors.

Members of the select committee, which is investigating the way the pharmaceutical industry operates, said later they were horrified by some of the evidence they took from two panels of experts.

Some of the most disturbing evidence centred on the efforts by the drug companies to persuade family doctors to use their products by persuading some of the leading medical experts in the country to put their names to technical reports about trials of new drugs.

Drug companies used euphemisms to describe the side effects, it was alleged.

Professor David Healy, head of psychological medicine at the University of Wales, said he had seen suicidal tendencies labelled as "nausea" while aggression verging on homicidal behaviour in children taking prescribed medicines was described as "hostile".

"I have had papers written for me and sent to me," said Professor Healy. He refused to put his name to the articles, which eventually appeared under the name of a specialist from Vienna. He added. "I have been a participant and party to the generation of views favouring newer over older agents [drugs] unaware that the pharmaceutical companies were keeping key safety data hidden."

Family doctors' practices can make profits of more than £50,000 a year from drug companies by recruiting their patients for clinical trials. But the patients are never told that the drug companies can conceal data about side effects.

Another expert, Professor Andrew Herxheimer, the emeritus fellow of the UK Cochrane Centre at Oxford, said the drug companies used the threat of legal action for breach of commercial confidentiality to strike fear into civil servants in a regulatory agency who were supposed to keeping a check on the industry. "The department has a horror of being sued," he said.

Dr Des Spence of the action group, No Free Lunch UK, said the most important opinion leaders were taken to hotels abroad by drug companies. They would be offered fees for lecturing and consultancies.

Dr Peter Wilmshurst, consultant cardiologist at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital, was asked to supply the committee under the cover of parliamentary privilege with the names of companies which have breached the association's ethical codes.

He told the committee that the companies would pay up to £5,000 for a one-hour talk with doctors, who might be unaware that the speaker was in the pay of the company.

Dr Wilmshurst said that in the 1980s he had been offered a bribe of two years' salary not to publish research on the side effects of a new heart drug which ran "counter to the interests" of the company producing it.

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