1. How Big Pharma writes the rules

    If it seems like our major medical guidelines were written by the drug industry, it's because they practically were.

    Your own doctor probably uses these guidelines to make treatment decisions every day--but a new study shows they weren't written by impartial experts using only the best science.

    They were written by drug industry stooges with a vested interest in protecting Big Pharma's bottom line.

    Researchers looked at 17 major guidelines produced by the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology between 2003 and 2008, and found that 56 percent of the 498 people who helped write them had conflicts of interest.

    That's enough to stack every deck along the way--but believe it or not, it gets worse from there. The researchers say 81 percent of those who led the groups that wrote the guidelines had a personal financial stake in the very companies that would be impacted by their decisions.

    One expert put it best in the New York Times: "The guy who's calling balls and strikes should not be a shareholder in one of the teams," Dr. David J. Rothman, a professor and president of the Institute on Medicine as a Profession at Columbia University, told the newspaper.

    "It's so self-evident that if you're going to be doing guidelines, it should be clean. What's amazing is that it hasn't been accomplished yet," he said.

    Amazing, perhaps--but it's been this way for years, and the guideline writers aren't the only ones under the influence of Big Pharma's cash and prizes: Both the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology themselves have collected millions of dollars from the biggest names in the drug industry.

    The AHA took in more than $30 million in 2006-2007 alone from drug companies and the makers of medical devices... and it appears that the group has a history of not being forthcoming about those financial links.

    In 2000, the AHA backed a Genentech drug called alteplase, claiming it would save lives if given to stroke patients... but never mentioned the $11 million it had collected from Genentech over the previous decade.

    The AHA withdrew its support for the drug when BMJ exposed that relationship... but the organization didn't learn its lesson.

    When a major study found in 2008 that the expensive combo drug Vytorin worked no better than the cheaper Zocor, the AHA rushed to the defense-- dismissing the study and urging patients to keep taking their Vytorin.

    They didn't mention the $2 million a year the AHA had been receiving from Vytorin's makers.

    The American College of Cardiology released a similar statement in favor of Vytorin... also while taking in money from the drug's makers.

  2. Batter up! FDA has it both ways

    The FDA wants you to know that the cholesterol med Vytorin and its sister drug Zetia don't cause cancer.

    Well, they think that maybe these meds don't cause cancer. In fact, they're almost sure. Sort of.

    That's right – the federal agency charged with sorting the harmful drugs from the helpful ones couldn't quite figure out which side to take on this one – so they've decided to have it both ways.

    Here's the official statement:

    "Based on the currently available information, FDA believes it is unlikely that Vytorin or Zetia increase the risk of cancer or cancer-related death, but at this time an association cannot be definitely ruled out."

    That may sound less than definitive, but Merck calls that a victory. You would too if you were faced with the prospect of pulling a blockbuster drug from the market. Zetia and Vytorin were worth more than $1 billion to Merck last quarter alone, even after all the negative press they've received.

    The alarm was raised in 2008, when a clinical trial found that patients who took Vytorin had an increased risk of death from all types of cancer when compared to those who took a placebo.

    And that potential cancer link is just one of many big questions looming over this med... because that same study found that patients on Vytorin didn't see any reduction in cardiovascular risk.

    Another recent study found that Zetia – one of the drugs in Vytorin – was outdone by a prescription-strength version of the common vitamin niacin for artery health.

    Two more studies are under way that could help provide more answers on the possible cancer link... one will be finished later this year, the other in 2012.

    The bigger issue is why the jury's still out on this at all. The drug was approved – it's on the market. These are the kinds of concerns that should have been handled long before it ever reached the pharmacy.

    Yet time and again, year after year, dangerous drugs are still finding their way into medicine cabinets from coast to coast.

    If that's not the most damning evidence of the FDA's complete ineffectiveness, I don't know what is. But I do know this: The most common drugs in circulation are for the most part completely unnecessary... especially when it comes to cholesterol control.

    There's no great mystery to controlling cholesterol and lowering your risk for heart disease: Eat better. Be healthier. Get some exercise. Make sure you're getting all the nutrients your body needs.

    That's enough for most people – the real problem is that too many of us lack the willpower to really make those changes and stay with them.

    But when you consider the alternative – an endless rotation of drugs with risks, side effects and even problems with their overall effectiveness – it should be a no-brainer.

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