Why 60 Minutes suddenly discovered the placebo effect in treating depression

When Dr. Irving Kirsch published his meta-analysis in PLoS Medicine in February 2008 showing that antidepressants were no more effective than a placebo in treating mild or moderate depression, the national news media ignored his explosive findings, for the most part. And when I published Side Effects a few months later, exposing the deception behind the making of the bestselling antidepressant Paxil, they were similarly unresponsive. While my book received great reviews and a lot of attention from regional radio outlets, the national broadcast media pretty much ignored the story. Indeed, a studio interview I did with Kai Ryssdal on American Public Media’s Marketplace never aired, perhaps because of the pressure Paxil’s maker, GlaxoSmithKline, brought to bear on Marketplace’s producers.

So it was with some bemusement that I watched the 60 Minutes segment on antidepressants, which focused on Kirsch’s 2008 finding that antidepressants are no better than placebo in treating most forms of depression. In the segment, Kirsch, who is now associate director of the Program in Placebo Studies at Beth-Israel Deaconess Hospital, noted that the reason many patients feel better after taking antidepressants is not because of the drug’s effect, but because of the powerful placebo effect in making them feel better.

Why, I wondered, was 60 Minutes taking note of this now, four years after Kirsch published his meta-analysis and two years after he published his own book on the subject, The Emperor’s New Drugs?

Here is one very plausible reason, as articulated by Dr. Stephen Greer in a CurrentTV column today: because the patents for most of these blockbuster antidepressants (like Paxil and Prozac) have expired and the drug companies, who advertise heavily on television, are no longer pressuring the national media to stay mum.

As Greer notes, “it is quite rare for national TV news to report on any data critical of blockbusters despite plenty of research over the last several decades questioning the risk/benefit profile of numerous commonly used drugs.”

So why now? As he points out:

The most likely explanation is that the same drugs now being exposed as unsafe and ineffective have also lost patent protection and therefore, are no longer generating the huge advertising revenue for the networks. A significant portion of the revenue for the broadcast networks is derived from pharmaceutical advertisements.

I think Greer’s on to something. Don’t you?

This entry was posted in antidepressants, conflicts of interest, drug marketing, health care costs, pharmaceutical industry and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Why 60 Minutes suddenly discovered the placebo effect in treating depression

  1. I agree, and this appears to be a mechanism to produce what we have called the anechoic effect, the tendency of stories that run counter to the vested interests of large health care organizations (like pharmaceutical companies, but not limited to them) and their leaders to produce no echoes. See related posts on the Health Care Renewal blog: http://hcrenewal.blogspot.com/search/label/anechoic%20effect

  2. I agree, but I was wondering if you have asked Ryssdal that directly (that Glaxo applied pressure). If that’s true, it’s worth “airing.”

    • Alison Bass says:

      Merrill: The reason I was given by Marketplace for why my interview with Kai never aired was that the producers couldn’t edit the segment to fit. Does that make sense to you?

      • Byard Pidgeon says:

        They “couldn’t edit to fit”…into the 15 seconds they would have given it.
        “Sorry, just not enough time”.

  3. @secuti says:

    While the in-patent neuroleptics will indirectly benefit from this information getting out as they become promoted for ‘treatment resistant’ cases. Paradoxically, the pharmaceutical companies may even prefer that the truth of SSRI’s limited efficacy is now being acknowledged.

  4. Melody says:

    Now, if 60 Minutes would do a program discussing/explaining this remarkable “delay” they might begin the restoration of the public trust of media. Nahh! THAT ain’t gonna happen, is it?

  5. The same lack of critical national news exists with regard to the experimental medical devices known as health IT.

    The patents on those never expire.

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  7. Irving Kirsch isn’t even the first to publish a meta-analysis showing that anti-depressants are little more than placebos. Here’s an article I wrote in 1992 about Roger Greenberg’s conclusion, published in the J. of Consulting & Clinical Psychology.

  8. Peter C. Dwyer says:

    Absolutely. And I think the same happened when NPR aired a 3 part series on SSRI’s, questioning the serotonin hypothesis. I was at first happy to see this out there, but by the 3rd part, they were touting the magical qualities of Ketamine. I concluded the whole piece could have been written by a PhARMA P.R. hack: dis their current off (or nearly off) patent drugs, and then tout the next “breakthrough” antidepressant waiting on the launching pad. NPR interviewed a couple researchers and didn’t ask one seriously probing question.

  9. mmir says:

    No surprise here…had it been a program about antipsychotics (the new $money$-maker for Big Pharma), it would not have made it on mainstream TV.

  10. Maria Miller says:

    No, there should be no statue of limitations when a company knowingly misrepresents the facts on dangers of medications. There should be criminal charges against the Pharmaceutical companies, doctors, the FDA, Pharmacies.
    They are all complicit in this. Most people today still trust their doctors. I can give you a name and a quote from my Opthomologist who was rather honest (albeit stupid) to say that he was doing very well financially, had six kids, worked hard and frankly had no time to read anything except headlines. Is ignorance an excuse? I don’t think so. Did the executives who knowingly suppressed that Oxicodin and were only fired and had to pay fines after making millions in bonuses. Isn’t this a crime????? Isn’t it a crime that a doctor would prescribe benzodiazepenes to an admitted alcoholic and then even reinforce it by giving them the same medication while the patient is in the hospital? Isn’t it EVIL that someone who was most likely suffering from withdrawls from benzos be diagnosed as bipolar or “dual diagnosis” and given antipsychotics be criminal. How about giving a patient ECT after they were put on so much phenobarbital that their blood pressure dropped to such dangerous levels that they became catatonic? Isn’t that criminal? How about the labels that state that it’s up to the discretion of the doctor to prescribe benzos, although they know that these are extremely addictive drugs and thus have a loophole preventing them from lawsuits? How about the insurance companies who in their formularies pay psychiatrists anwhere from $100-$200 for writing scripts. My psychiatrist actually nods off while writing them. How about prescribing 8mg of Xanax to a known addict without ever telling them what will happen when they stop? How about the Rehabs who don’t know how to treat addiction? Certainly they prescribe Seboxen (spelling) for opiates but not one facility in Michigan knows how to treat withdraws from benzos. St. Joseph of Ann Arbor recommends 1 year on phenobarbital as the only way to beat addiction? How about the hospital website (St. Joseph’s in Ann Arbor) only a year and a half ago stating that Ambien CR is non addictive? How about the new anxiety drugs called “Z” drugs are not indicated as being addictive on Wikepedia and yet just recently Lunesta, Ambien CR has been labeled as addictive. How about psychiatrists prescribing Cymbalta to a patient with uncontrolled glaucoma? This all happened to me. Fifteen years of PURE HELL. Loss of relationships, family, financial ruin, impact to economy – should there be a statute of limitations? I SAY NOT. Can someone say I should have known better – I will answer perhaps yes. Twenty years ago I was never depressed, anxious, etc., and the only reason I went to see a Psychiatrist was because my therapist could not be paid by my insurance company. I was going thru a divorce – a situational depression. I had a blackout the first time I drank 40 years ago. I had no idea that I was getting prescribed a pill in the bottle. I was probably a full blown addict in a matter of two weeks. Can I say anymore? I won’t edit. check for spelling, but anyone who reads this will know that the information is from the heart. I am well now. Do I want to make sure that this never happens to anyone else – YOU BET – How??? I am not famous, can’t access the media. What’s the answer??
    Does anyone have one. I am one of millions. I think about the teens in rehabs and it’s scarry. Prescription Drugs – not illicit ones are the major problem these days.

    • Brown says:

      I myself am now on day four of no Cymbalta!!! My god it is unbearable!!! I have been on it just for two months for anxiety. It did nothing to address my anxiety just made me go to sleep quicker. I began to feel really addicted in every way so I thought I would go off them. Day four and the body-brain zaps are getting worse and I cannot stand it! Every three seconds they come. I feel dizzy, nauseous and cranky. The nightmares are just horrendous…really scary. Waking up in a pool of sweat terrified. This drug is dangerous REALLY DANGEROUS! How the hell did it get out there? I will never take another prescription drug as long as I live….if I manage to get over this! EVIL EVIL EVIL! Warn everyone

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