SSRIs, Stealth Marketing, and Public Radio

We have previously posted about instances of stealth marketing in public television (here and here.) Now Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer have published "Stealth Marketers: Are Doctors Shilling for Drug Companies on Public Radio" in Slate. Their take-home message was:

A few weeks ago, devoted listeners of public radio were treated to an episode of the award-winning radio series The Infinite Mind called 'Prozac Nation: Revisited.' The segment featured four prestigious medical experts discussing the controversial link between antidepressants and suicide. In their considered opinions, all four said that worries about the drugs have been overblown.

The radio show, which was broadcast nationwide and paid for in part by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, had the air of quiet, authoritative credibility. Host Dr. Fred Goodwin, a former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, interviewed three prominent guests, and any radio producer would be hard-pressed to find a more seemingly credible quartet. Credible, that is, except for a crucial detail that was never revealed to listeners: All four of the experts on the show, including Goodwin, have financial ties to the makers of antidepressants. Also unmentioned were the "unrestricted grants" that The Infinite Mind has received from drug makers, including Eli Lilly, the manufacturer of the antidepressant Prozac.

We don't know just how much funding or when the show last received it, since neither Goodwin nor the show's producers responded to repeated requests for interviews.
In addition,

Goodwin is on the board of directors of Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, an industry-funded front, or "Astroturf" group, which receives a majority of its funding from drug companies.

Regarding the financial ties of panelist Peter Pitts

CMPI President Peter Pitts was one of Goodwin's three guests for 'Prozac Nation.' We don't know which companies fund his group because when we asked him, Pitts said, 'I don't want to go into that.'

Pitts has another title that might have been relevant to The Infinite Mind; he is the senior vice president for global health affairs at the PR firm Manning Selvage & Lee, which represents Eli Lilly Inc., GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, and more than a dozen other pharmaceutical companies. Yet on the show, Pitts was identified only by his title as 'a former FDA official.'

Regarding Dr Andrew F Leuchter:

a professor of psychiatry at UCLA who has received research money from drug companies including Eli Lilly Inc., Pfizer, and Novartis.

Finally, regarding Dr Nada Stotland:

Nada Stotland, president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association, has served on the speakers' bureaus of GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer.

Note that neither Dr Goodwin nor the show's producers agreed to be interviewed by Brownlee and Lenzer.

In my humble opinion, it's great that more and more instances of apparent stealth marketing are being exposed in the media.

It may be that the people introduced as distinguished experts on this show who asserted that the suicide risks of antidepressants were overblown were not the least bit influenced by their financial ties to pharmaceutical companies which make antidipressants. Or maybe they were influenced?

But at least they should have revealed these ties to their listeners. Maybe had the show's producers felt compelled to reveal such conflicts of interest, they might have thought about at least adding some experts who did not have such ties.

Finally, as we have said before, physicians and researchers who are in a position to influence how the media discusses medicine and health care should, at a minimum, fully and completely disclose any financial arrangements they have with organizations with vested interests affected by such media discussions.

ADDENDUM (12 May, 2008) - See also this post by Ed Silverman on PharmaLot, and especially the voluminous and vociferous comments.

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