Last month, one of my blog posts featured a letter written by a group of doctors, expressing their concerns about the mooted expansion of statin therapy. The letter detailed six major objections to the plan, including the mass-medicalization of millions of healthy individuals, the unreliability of the evidence regarding the adverse effects of statins, and the facts that almost all the evidence is industry-funded and that multiple conflicts of interest exist on the ‘expert committee’ that is adjudicating on the statin issue. The letter received widespread coverage in the press and other media, and I think it did much to stoke the flaming debate that some have described as the ‘statin wars’.
Those strongly supportive of the plans to widen statin prescriptions are hardly going to go away without a fight, though. And this week six professors convened a press briefing at the Science Media Centre to put forward their arguments. The briefing was reported in the British Medical Journal this week .
Two of the ‘usual suspects’ were Professor Sir Rory Collins (head of the Cholesterol Treatment Trialists collaboration) and Professor Peter Weissberg (medical director of the British Heart Foundation).
One of Professor Collins’ gripes was, apparently, that “misrepresenting the evidence” will have a negative impact on people who are at high risk of cardiac events. He is quoted as saying: “It’s perfectly reasonable to debate whether patients at lower risk should get statins or not, but it’s inappropriate to misrepresent the evidence.”
He redoubled his assertion that rates of ‘myopathy’ are much lower than some people state. However, he is referring to the incidence of muscle problems where the threshold of ‘abnormal’ is when levels of the enzyme used to assess muscle damage (creatinine kinase) is at least 10 times the upper limit of normal. Professor Sir Rory Collins is apparently disinterested unless muscles are in near-meltdown. We can, I suppose, just ignore those poor unfortunates with less biochemical aberrations even though their symptoms are real and often debilitating. I think it’s clearly business as usual for Rory Collins, who makes claims that some are misleading the public while I think he, ahem, continues to mislead the public.
Professor Weissberg tells us that the “…the critics are wrong. They’ve retracted, they’re wrong.” Except, that the only thing that has been retracted were the misleading representations of statin side-effects as reported in one piece of research. All the major objections detailed in the original letter stand until someone properly disputes them.
With regard to these, Professor Weissberg calms any concerns about industry involvement in the evidence base, because drug companies only paid people to do the studies, rather than the drug companies doing the studies themselves. So, nothing to concern ourselves with here.
He adds that: “The biggest threat to good medicine is prejudice and anecdote.” I have some sympathy for this view, but boy would I like to see Professor Weissberg stay away from prejudice and anecdote myself. It was not so long ago that he made claims to support statins using data that did not support the use of statins at all.
And perhaps the most telling thing of all are the comments that come from Fiona Fox, director of the Science Media Centre. Apparently, only pro-statin experts were invited to the briefing. In defence of this tactic, Ms Fox tells us that the “vast majority” of cardiac and statin experts believed that the evidence was overwhelming, and that it was not the centre’s job to provide a platform to a minority who did not and thereby project a false image that the debate was in equipoise (when it was not).
First of all, I wouldn’t be too sure that the evidence is overwhelming or that the pro-statin camp is in the great majority. And even if there things were true, is that a reason to stifle debate and allow no right of reply?
Do these tactics suggest that Professors Collins and Weissberg and the rest of their merry band of men have true confidence in their position? I personally doubt it, and believe that their attempt to shut down debate suggests they may be desperate not to have the weakness of the data and their arguments revealed in front of their very own eyes.
1. Hawkes N, et al. Six professors back NICE guidance on extending use of statins. BMJ 2014;349:g4380