STAT News Officially Has a Credibility Problem

Published March 16, 2018
By caroline

STAT News is the latest independent publication to be haunted by pharmaceutical ghostwriting and authors with undisclosed industry ties.  

Big Pharma’s influence can be found everywhere. There are the in-your-face drug advertisements, like the ones you see on television. Then there are the crafty PR pieces that are so subtle, only the most trained eyes can spot them for what they are: ploys to get doctors to prescribe the next big drug, and marketing pitches to get patients to ask for them.

Ghostwriters and Pharma-backed writers fall into this latter category. These authors try to come off as just another concerned doctor, patient, or advocate, but in reality their opinions are heavily influenced by their relationships with pharmaceutical companies.

In the last year alone, Forbes, USA Today, Newsweek, and the Los Angeles Times have published opinion pieces by authors with known conflicts of interest. Some of these articles have since been retracted once the editors realized their editorial policies were violated, but many still stand in their original forms.

STAT News, an independent medical publication associated with The Boston Globe, is the latest publication to be haunted by pharmaceutical ghostwriting and undisclosed industry ties.  

Patient Praises Drug Ads with Help from Gilead Sciences

The company’s PR firm asked Ms. Dushane to write an op-ed for STAT, then helped her edit the piece.

STAT launched in 2015 with the noble mission to use writing to “hold individuals and institutions accountable.” But despite its good intentions, authors backed by for-profit companies have slipped their way into the publication’s opinion section multiple times.

In 2016, STAT ran an op-ed titled “You can complain about TV drug ads. They may have saved my life,” written by Deborah Clark Dushane. The retired educator praised drug commercials for leading her to a medicine that cured her chronic hepatitis C.

Ms. Dushane writes, “I strongly believe that if I hadn’t seen TV ads about chronic hepatitis C and new drugs to treat it, I wouldn’t have done anything to protect myself against it.”

Ms. Dushane doesn’t name the “new drug” she discovered. But the op-ed was published just a few weeks after a STAT article criticizing an advertisement campaign for a new hepatitis C drug called Harvoni, made by Gilead Sciences. Harvoni had one of the most expensive drug ad campaigns that year coming in at $100 million.

HealthNewsReview, a media watchdog group, discovered that the op-ed originated from a letter Ms. Dushane wrote to Gilead Sciences: the same company that manufactures Harvoni.

The company’s PR firm asked her to write an op-ed for STAT, then helped her edit the piece. It’s unclear if Gilead Sciences paid her, but they did fly her out to California to learn more about their company and products.

In September 2017, STAT updated the article to disclose Ms. Dushane’s relationship with Gilead Sciences.

Physician Fails to Disclose Millions in Vaccine Profits

As the rotavirus vaccine inventor, Dr. Offit was entitled to 30% of the profits, or roughly $45 million.

Like patients, sometimes doctors have ties to corporations that may affect their position on the use of pharmaceutical drugs or vaccines. This is the case for Dr. Paul Offit, an outspoken vaccine defender who rarely addresses his financial relationship with Merck.

Dr. Offit currently holds a research chair at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia that is funded by Merck. He also helped to develop a rotavirus vaccine that reportedly earned the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia more than $150 million when Merck bought the vaccine patent. As the vaccine inventor, Dr. Offit was entitled to 30 percent of the profits, or roughly $45 million.

Needless to say, Dr. Offit isn’t the most objective scientist to comment on vaccine safety. Yet, STAT published his response to an interview with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. on the White House vaccine safety commission without disclosing his vaccine profits.

At Kennedy’s request, his conversation with STAT was published in a Q&A format to avoid being misquoted and misrepresented.

The two briefly discussed vaccine safety before Branswell tried to switch back to the White House commission that Kennedy was asked to chair, though he already made it clear that his knowledge was limited. STAT Senior Writer Helen Branswell stated, “So I had some questions I wanted to ask you, and in a Q&A that’s the way it works. I ask some questions, you answer the questions or don’t answer if you like.”

The interview was more combative and one-sided than what you would expect from an independent medical publication. But Dr. Offit still felt that a "cigarette-style caution" should be printed above the interview. It's a bold statement from someone who didn't disclose their financial ties with one of the largest vaccine manufacturers. 

STAT Publishes Op-ed By Corporate-Funded Group

Publishing articles by individuals with ties to corporations is one thing; publishing articles by known industry front groups is another.

In 2017, STAT News published an article written by two members of the American Council on Science & Health (ACSH), an industry front group with ties to Big Tobacco, Big Agriculture, and Big Pharma. ACSH was created to oppose the “junk science” they believed environmental groups like the National Resources Defense Council promoted, and the chemophobia (or aversion to chemicals) found in mainstream media. (Interestingly, Dr. Offit served on the ACSH Board.)

The ACSH op-ed, written by Josh Bloom and Alex Berezow, argues for more lenient opioid prescription policies. They recommend scrapping the policies written by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) intended to curb the opioid crisis, and replacing them with “rules that do not punish patients with legitimate needs for opioids or the doctors who are trying to help them.”

Berezow, ACSH’s Senior Fellow of Biomedical Science, also writes for USA Today.

In his USA Today articles, Berezow has argued that Scott Gottlieb’s industry ties will only make him a better FDA leader, and that there is no evidence to support the link between talc and ovarian cancer. An analysis of 16 studies shows that talcum powder is associated with a 33 percent increased risk for ovarian cancer.

These articles echo the pro-industry content found on the ACSH website. Blog posts range from “BPA is Just as Dangerous as it Never Was” to “Should Medical Textbook Authors Have to Disclose Industry Payments?” That last article, by the way, argued that industry payments don’t automatically delegitimize work, and suggests that if readers dismiss authors they feel are biased, then they may be just as biased themselves.

According to ACSH’s internal documents, they have received donations from corporations like Chevron, Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation, Bayer Cropscience, and 3M, to name just a few. From July through December 2012, 58 percent of ACSH donations came from corporations and large private foundations.

Neither STAT nor USA Today acknowledged these conflicts of interest, and the articles remain in their original forms.

(Click below for more.)

PR Firm Ghostwrites Op-Ed Praising Pharma Sales Reps

It was a September 2017 op-ed published under the byline of Dr. Robert Yapundich that would finally force STAT to shore up their editorial policies.

HealthNewsReview discovered that How pharma sales reps help me be a more up-to-date-doctor” wasn’t written by the North Carolinian physician, but was actually written by Keybridge Communications, a PR firm which represents pharmaceutical companies. Dr. Yapundich just edited the piece before it was submitted.

While it’s unclear if pharma sales reps actually helped Dr. Yapundich become a better doctor, we do know that his ties with pharmaceutical companies helped cushion his bank account. Prior to the article’s publication, he had received more than $200,000 from pharma companies, according to Dollars for Docs.

When readers spotted inconsistencies in his writing, STAT approached Dr. Yapundich, who confirmed he had fabricated an anecdote in the piece. STAT retracted the article along with a statement that said that Yapundich’s conflict of interests weren’t initially disclosed to them.

To prevent a similar incident from happening, STAT changed their op-ed submissions policy. Contributors must now answer a series of questions about conflicts of interest they may have, including industry payments they’ve received and their relationships with special-interest groups. The publication also clearly states that it does not accept articles written by PR firms or advocacy groups, and asks that writers disclose any assistance they received in writing or editing their articles.

Forbes Columnist Fired For Ghostwriting Writes for STAT

Five months after STAT News publicly announced their commitment to transparency, they published an op-ed written by one of the most well-known industry supported writers: Henry Miller.

In Miller’s STAT debut, he criticizes funding for the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, a branch of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health focuses on alternative medicine, which Miller argues means that it is “far less equalin the sense of both scientific rigor and importancethan the others,” and describes it as the “dirty little secret of the research community and Congress.” He even describes the center’s studies on the health benefits of yoga and tea as projects that only occur when the “inmates run the asylum.”

It isn’t clearyetif pharmaceutical companies were behind Henry Miller’s op-ed. But his editorial history certainly raises questions.

Mr. Miller was recently fired by Forbes after it was discovered that the agricultural giant Monsanto had ghostwritten one of his pieces. According to an internal email exchange, Eric Sachsformer science, policy lead at Monsantoasked Miller if he was interested in writing about the International Association of Research on Cancer’s decision to classify glyphosate (the key ingredient in Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup) as a “probable human carcinogen.”   

"This is not a scientific, peer-reviewed journal. It’s an op-ed we collaborated with him on."

Mr. Miller responded: “I would be if I could start from a high-quality draft.”

Forbes terminated their relationship with Mr. Miller after The New York Times journalist Danny Hakim broke the story in August 2017. Forbes requires contributors to disclose any potential conflicts of interest and sign contracts stating that the writing is their own.

But, when asked about the Forbes piece, Scott Partridge, Monsanto vice president of Global Strategy, blatantly dismissed these policies: “This is not a scientific, peer-reviewed journal. It’s an op-ed we collaborated with him on,” he told the Times.

When asked if Monsanto was involved in articles for other publications, a Monsanto spokesperson replied, “Our scientists have never collaborated with Dr. Miller on his submissions to The New York Times. Our scientists have on occasion collaborated with Dr. Miller on other pieces.”

Monsanto and Miller are mum on which publications these “other pieces” appeared in. But, before the Forbes controversy emerged, Miller co-wrote a Los Angeles Times op-ed with Julie Kelly (whose husband happens to be a food lobbyist) that criticized California’s decision to list and regulate glyphosate as a carcinogen.

The Los Angeles Times published a statement in the original op-ed that acknowledges Miller should have disclosed to them that Monsanto supplied a draft for his 2015 Forbes column on the topic.

Miller’s Comeback Shows Editors Still Ignore Industry Connections

"What good is the policy if somebody is dishonest about their industry connections, and editors aren't willing to confront that?"

The Forbes-Monsanto ghostwriting scandal created a necessary uproar. But while publications like Forbes and the Los Angeles Times immediately retracted articles and issued public statements, what’s troubling is that we seem to be back where we were just a few months ago.

The Los Angeles Times published another Miller op-ed in January of this year. This time, Miller took a pro-pharma stance and argued for more funding and research for flu vaccine development.

Also in January, Miller penned “The Campaign for Organic Food is a Deceitful, Expensive Scam,” for Newsweek. The article attacks the organic industry and Danny Hakim, the journalist who exposed the Forbes ghostwriting incident.  

Shortly after, Matthew Cooper publicly resigned as Newsweek’s political editor, calling out the publication’s “reckless leadership.” In his email to Dev Pragad, CEO of Newsweek Media Group, Cooper claimed some editors “recklessly sought clicks at the expense of accuracy [and] retweets over fairness.”

When Miller’s name appeared on STAT in February, Stacy Malkan, co-director of U.S. Right To Know, wrote an open letter to the publication, urging them to be as transparent as possible about contributors’ corporate connections.  

"Full transparency and robust reporting is the first step in solving the problem and regaining readers' trust."   

STAT simply replied that Miller did not disclose any conflicts of interest to them in the contributor agreement. 

After this blunt response, we asked Stacy Malkan if she believes independent media is doing enough to fight the problem of ghostwriting and undisclosed corporate interests.

“Undisclosed industry ghostwriting is a huge problem, both in the scientific literature and in the opinion pages of media outlets where corporations regularly push their views through allies who seem independent but are not,” she said.

“I was glad to see that STAT upgraded its contributor disclosure policies after the embarrassing pharma doctor op-ed, but what good is the policy if somebody is dishonest about their industry connections, and editors aren't willing to confront that? Media outlets need to do a better job of not only requiring contributors to disclose industry connections, but investigating and reporting on industry connections. Full transparency and robust reporting is the first step in solving the problem and regaining readers' trust.”   

Just because a physician has the byline for an article instead of a pharmaceutical company, or a writer with a history promoting industry interests signs an author agreement, doesn't mean that the writing is free from corporate influence. It's time that readers learn who is really behind the op-eds they read.

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