Vitamin D & Thee

My Canadian friend Alan Cassels co-authors a column in the Toronto Globe and Mail about how drug companies have countered news about what Vitamin D can do. Excerpt:

"...For decades, the data have been building, showing that larger amounts of vitamin D are good for you. Animal studies and large human studies have shown that taking a lot more vitamin D than 400 units is both safe and beneficial.

You don't have to dig too deeply to find evidence that the drug companies habitually wield science in a way that benefits, above all, their investors. Spinning the science has shaped the minds of regulators, members of the medical profession and, of course, the consumer against this simple, cheap and remarkably effective vitamin.

But how might the thinking unroll in the executive suite of a large company manufacturing patented drugs?

First: You know vitamin D is good, but you can't make any money out of it because you can't patent the damn stuff. No promise of sizable profits means unhappy shareholders. Can't have that.

Second: If vitamin D actually stops people from getting sick, it can take a serious chunk out of the market for the patented medicines we currently make. Can't have that, either.

Third: If people increase their production or intake of vitamin D (and a host of other key nutrients, through diet and lifestyle, or supplements), they might stop worrying so much about their health. So, the market for fear-based products —drugs that lower "nasty" cholesterol, alter blood pressure and improve blood sugar — could well shrink. This is definitely not good for shareholders.

Given this fact pattern, how have the leaders in corporate medicine responded to this potentially difficult competitor?

First: They've worked on promoting the message with regulators and doctors (and you, dear reader) saying too much vitamin D could be bad for you. Reinforcing the "recommended daily allowance" message (despite being based on outdated and unscientific assertions) prevents people from taking vitamins in doses large enough to compete with patented products. Despite scant evidence to this effect, they've suggested that a host of micro-nutrients will make people sick if taken in too large amounts.

Second: They've played down the dangers associated with patented products with the message that prescribed drugs must be "safe" because they are rigorously studied by our companies, approved by Health Canada, prescribed by competent physicians and dispensed by helpful pharmacists. You can't say the same about vitamin D, right?

Third: They've used their giant drug studies (which the regulator requires them to do, in order to license their patented medicine) and flooded medical journals, inserted themselves into physician education and made sure the media got the right spin on those products. The punchline: Drug good, vitamin bad."

Lots of interesting reader comments are linked at the end of the online column. One writes, "MUCH better use of valuable space in the (paper) than all that crap about Paris whats-her-name."

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Gary Schwitzer published on June 28, 2007 8:23 AM.

Pharma's growing influence on continuing medical education was the previous entry in this blog.

Journal editor bemoans bird flu scare mongering is the next entry in this blog.

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