In them we trust

Who decides whether a drug is licensed and remains licensed should problems turn up later? The answer is organizations such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US and its European counterpart, the European Medicines Agency (EMA). These bodies supposedly act in our interests to protect us against, among other things, worthless or hazardous pharmaceutical agents. Or that’s the theory, anyway.

Because both of these organizations have come under repeated criticism for apparently working harder to protect the interests of pharmaceutical companies than our own [1]. Recently, I was reading a piece in the Journal of the American Medical Association that highlighted some worrying examples.

Earlier this year, for example, researchers based in Denmark wrote in the British Medical Journal how its request for unpublished data on two weight loss drugs from the EMA was anything but straightforward. One of these drugs (rimonabant) has subsequently been withdrawn when it was discovered it could caused severe adverse effects depression and suicidal thoughts. The other drug (orlistat) has been claimed by consumer advocacy group Public Citizen to be of limited effectiveness and also potentially hazardous. The EMA refused to release clinical trial data on these drugs, arguing that to do so would undermine commercial interests. It eventually yielded the data only when compelled to do so by the European ombudsman.

Because of the seeming cosy relationship which the EMA has with pharmaceutical companies, the European Parliament has refused to sign off on the agency’s accounts, and has ordered a special investigation of the EMA over its funding sources and hiring practices.

The FDA has not been immune to criticism either. The JAMA piece recounts a sorry tale concerning the drug valdecoxib. This drug was licensed in 2001, but the manufacturer asked the FDA to withhold data on it. The FDA argued that such data was a trade secret. Public Citizen finally forced the data out of the FDA by initiating legal action, and discovered that valdecoxib could cause serious adverse effects including, err death. The drug was subsequently withdrawn.

According to Dr Steven Nissen, chair of the department of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic: “The FDA is now somewhat more transparent, but it’s not transparent enough. For reasons I can’t understand, it still keeps information secret.”

Talk from the FDA and EMA about protecting ‘commercial interests’ and trade secrets leaves me utterly cold. For me, there’s something deeply and troublingly unethical and immoral about withholding information that can cost people dearly in terms of the health and even with their lives. At least such misdeeds are coming to light and organizations such as the FDA and EMA are being more held to account.


1. Hampton T. European Drug Agency Under Fire – Critics Charge That Trial Data Are Too Inaccessible. JAMA 2011; 306(6): 593-595

2. Gøtzsche PC, et al. Opening up data at the European Medicines Agency. BMJ. 2011;342:d2686

7 Responses to In them we trust

  1. Angela 4 November 2011 at 8:36 pm #

    What is also of concern is the marketing (and prescribing) of drugs where there are accepted and serious side-effects. We shouldn’t even need to wait for problems to emerge later for these to be withdrawn – they should never have been marketed in the first place. Some of these have obviously been subject to a (potentially cynical) cost-benefit analysis that simply says ‘the side-effects only occur in x% of patients, so it is fine to go ahead’.

  2. Valerie H 4 November 2011 at 10:16 pm #

    These organizations are too cozy with the industry. I have come to the opinion that it might be safer to do the opposite of what they promote. Is it really true that European Union is planning to severely limit access to common vitamins? That should help the pharmaceutical companies.

  3. Frederica Huxley 5 November 2011 at 2:45 am #

    If you can stomach it, read The Truth about Drug Companies by Marcia Angell, MD. It is an uncompromising eye-opener about the pharmaceutical industry and the revolving doors into the FDA. Talk about letting the fox guard the hen house.

  4. Jodi Welch 6 November 2011 at 8:04 pm #

    And what about statins? Surely they should be banned if the FDA and doctors acknowledged the damage they are doing to innocent people by hugely reducing production of the antioxidant coenzyme Q10 which protects all our cells. It was high time this was acknowledged by the medical profession.

  5. Chris 7 November 2011 at 5:45 pm #

    Transparency is democratising; secrecy, selective disclosure, or the release of deliberately misleading information is not.

  6. Liz Smith 11 November 2011 at 1:32 am #

    In my opinion the death of any patient taking a new drug should make the removal of the drug instantaneous – viox had to kill thousands before it was removed for a second time. Gardisil is another one with the death and serious reaction to a three figure list should have been removed before even 10 young people were dead. And how is aspartame still on the market, when it was only passed by President Reagan to pay up on a debt he owed Rumsfeld having been banned for about 10 years? I wonder how many independent members of the FDA and EMA there are as opposed to paid up employees of the drugs companies on these committees?


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