Most new drugs do little good, study finds

Drug companies have been accused of conning the public by hyping up patented medicines with little new to offer while downplaying their side-effects.

A study concluded that up to 85 per cent of new drugs offered few if any new benefits while having the potential to cause serious harm due to toxicity or misuse.

The author of the research, Donald Light, professor of comparative health policy at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey, said: “Sometimes drug companies hide or downplay information about serious side-effects of new drugs and overstate the drugs’ benefits. Then, they spend two to three times more on marketing than on research to persuade doctors to prescribe these new drugs. Doctors may get misleading information and then misinform patients about the risks of a new drug.”

Professor Light presented his paper, entitled “Pharmaceuticals: A Two-Tier Market for Producing ‘Lemons’ and Serious Harm”, yesterday at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia.

The study includes data from independent reviewers which suggest that 85 per cent of new drugs provide few, if any, new benefits.

Hyping a drug began with clinical trials designed to minimise evidence of harm and published literature that emphasised its advantages, said Professor Light.

Building on this foundation, pharmaceutical companies staged massive campaigns to sell the product, when a controlled limited launch would allow evidence of its effects to be gathered, he argued.

He accused companies of conducting a “swamp the regulator” policy – bombarding the bodies that award drug licences with large numbers of “incomplete, partial, sub-standard clinical trials”.

One study of 111 final applications for approval found that 42 per cent were missing data from adequately randomised trials, 40 per cent were supported by flawed testing of dosages, 39 per cent lacked evidence of clinical efficacy, and 49 per cent raised concerns about serious adverse side-effects, he said.

In a statement, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) said: “Professor Light is long on accusation and woefully short on hard evidence. There is now much greater transparency in clinical trial results. The UK pharmaceutical industry also adheres to a strict code of practice on the sales and marketing of its products.

“The patient information leaflet provided in every pack with a medicine details the side effects which have been reported in clinical trials and reviewed by the regulator.”