Researchers find companies exaggerate heart medicine benefit

Once regarded as the leading medication in heart disease treatment, statins were revered for their effectiveness in reducing illness among affected adults. 

After reviewing decades of research, USF professor Dr. David Diamond and independent health researcher Dr. Uffe Ravnskov have discovered the drug may not be as effective as advertised. 

Statins inhibit a higher level of cholesterol-lowering enzymes to the liver, which is most often experienced at a high level because of existing cardiovascular disease. 

Rather than focus on typical experimental testing and procedure, Diamond and his team looked over thousands of documents from professional medical literature. 

A common theme they discovered was statin advocates use a statistical measure that amplifies very small, beneficial effects of the drugs, known as relative risk. 

“These (drug companies) are strategic,” Diamond said. “They will actually show you the smaller results — but it’s in the fine print.” 

Drug companies are legally allowed to advertise relative risk instead of actual risk, which reveals the benefit to the entire population rather than the impacted sample, in their marketing campaigns. 

Statins such as Lipitor and Crestor are given to patients diagnosed with heart disease to lower its effects. 

A sample of 100 people may only have one individual who experiences a heart attack while on these trials. A placebo group, or one with no drug treatment which works as a control, may have two people who suffer similar fates. 

Even if the drug prevented just one less person from having a heart attack, companies can claim their product lowered risk by 50 percent rather than the actual 1 percent.  

“There isn’t much room to improve on these patients’ outcomes,” Diamond said. “Generally, drug companies don’t like to talk about absolute risk because the numbers are really small. No one wants to take a drug that will only give them a one percent improvement in outcome.” 

Technically the companies’ claims are not false, but the original, affected sample was already so small that the actual risk is merely a fraction of their claims. 

“This is just a spin on the numbers,” Diamond said. “It’s a marketing ploy with people speaking out against this technique nationwide. Doctors should be told the absolute risk, not the relative risk.”  

The team reviewed studies showing that patients are even less likely to take the cholesterol drugs if they are told the absolute risk instead of the relative risk, which would combat the interests of these major interest groups. Diamond and Ravnskov said they are not the only statin disbelievers. 

Diamond said he recalled a conference he recently attended where supporters were discussing the positive effects of their drugs when a person stood up and interrupted the presentation to share his opinion with the promoters. 

“He said, ‘You are deceiving these people because you’re only presenting relative risk,’ and I thought that was fantastic,” Diamond said. “We need more people to point this out as time goes on.” 

These researchers understand the importance of future discussion nationwide in terms of medical journals presenting data for absolute risk. At the very least, they would like a combination of both risks presented in the drug summary and advertising.

“People should have both components of the research findings,” Diamond said. “They should know the effect of the drug at the population level and they should know the risk of one population in relation to another.”