STAT News Officially Has a Credibility Problem

Drugs

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 Some of these articles have since been retracted once the editors realized their editorial policies were violated, but many still stand in their original forms.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.

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