There must be plenty of people who shudder when they hear that Peter Gøtzsche will be speaking at a meeting or see his name on the contents list of a journal. He is like the young boy who not only could see that the emperor had no clothes but also said so. Most of us either cannot see that the emperor is naked or will not announce it when we see his nakedness, which is why we badly need people like Peter. He is not a compromiser or a dissembler, and he has a taste for strong, blunt language and colourful metaphors. Some, perhaps many, people might be put off reading this book by Peter’s insistence on comparing the pharmaceutical industry to the mob, but those who turn away from the book will miss an important opportunity to understand something important about the world—and to be shocked.
You can imagine being at the meeting, with the sponsors spluttering with rage and the organisers acutely embarrassed. Peter quotes a colleague as saying that he felt “my direct approach might have pushed some people away who were undetermined.” But most of the audience were engaged and saw legitimacy in Peter’s points. In the following year all but one of the companies declined to sponsor the meeting.
He did not have any particular view on mammography when he was asked by the Danish authorities to look at the evidence, but he quickly concluded that much of the evidence was of poor quality. His general conclusion was that routine mammography might save some lives, although far fewer than enthusiasts said was the case, but at the cost of many false positives, women undergoing invasive and anxiety-creating procedures for no benefit. The subsequent arguments around routine mammography have been bitter and hostile, but Peter’s view might now be called the orthodox view. His book on the subject shows in a detailed way how scientists have distorted evidence in order to support their beliefs.
I have long recognised that science is carried out by human beings not objective robots and will therefore be prone to the many human failings, but I was shocked by the stories in Peter’s book on mammography. Much of this book is also shocking and in a similar way: it shows how science can be corrupted in order to advance particular arguments and how money, profits, jobs, and reputations are the most potent corrupters.
Many of those who read this book will ask if Peter has over-reached himself in suggesting that the activities of the drug industry amount to organised crime. The characteristics of organised crime, racketeering, is defined in US law as the act of engaging repeatedly in certain types of offence, including extortion, fraud, federal drug offences, bribery, embezzlement, obstruction of justice, obstruction of law enforcement, tampering with witnesses, and political corruption. Peter produces evidence, most of it detailed, to support his case that pharmaceutical companies are guilty of most of these offences.
And he is not the first to compare the industry with the Mafia or mob. He quotes a former vice-president of Pfizer, who has said:
“It is scary how many similarities there are between this industry and the mob. The mob makes obscene amounts of money, as does this industry. The side effects of organized crime are killings and deaths, and the side effects are the same in this industry. The mob bribes politicians and others, and so does the drug industry …”
Many people are killed by the industry, many more than are killed by the mob. Indeed, hundreds of thousands are killed every year by prescription drugs. Many will see this as almost inevitable because the drugs are being used to treat diseases that themselves kill. But a counter-argument is that the benefits of drugs are exaggerated, often because of serious distortions of the evidence behind the drugs, a “crime” that can be attributed confidently to the industry.
The great doctor William Osler famously said that it would be good for humankind and bad for the fishes if all the drugs were thrown into the sea. He was speaking before the therapeutic revolution in the middle of the 20th century that led to penicillin, other antibiotics, and many other effective drugs, but Peter comes close to agreeing with him and does speculate that we would be better off without most psychoactive drugs, where the benefits are small, the harms considerable, and the level of prescribing massive.
And, as with the mob, woe be to anybody who whistleblows or gives evidence against the industry. Peter tells several stories of whistleblowers being hounded, and John Le Carré’s novel describing drug company ruthlessness became a bestseller and a successful Hollywood film.
So it’s not entirely fanciful to compare the drug industry to the mob, and the public, despite its enthusiasm for taking drugs, is sceptical about the drug industry. In a poll in Denmark the public ranked the drug industry second bottom of those in which they had confidence, and a US poll ranked the industry bottom with tobacco and oil companies. The doctor and author Ben Goldacre, in his book Bad Pharma raises the interesting thought that doctors have come to see as “normal” a relationship with the drug industry that the public will see as wholly unacceptable when they fully understand it. In Britain doctors might follow journalists, members of Parliament, and bankers into disgrace for failing to see how corrupt their ways have become. At the moment the public tends to trust doctors and distrust drug companies, but the trust could be rapidly lost.
Critics of the drug industry have been increasing in number, respectability, and vehemence, and Peter has surpassed them all in comparing the industry with organised crime. I hope that nobody will be put off reading this book by the boldness of his comparison, and perhaps the bluntness of the message will lead to valuable reform.
Richard Smith was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative.