The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

30 years of selling snake oil

Jul 22, 2002

For more than 30 years, American doctors have urged women reaching menopause to take hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Supposedly, HRT resulted in stronger bones, fewer strokes and fewer heart attacks. Now, however, a study done by the country’s main research institute, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has been called off three years early. Not only did HRT not meet its claims, it actually produced significantly more strokes, heart attacks and blood clots; and more cases of invasive breast cancer than found in women who didn’t take HRT.

In 1966, Dr. Robert Wilson wrote a book and began enthusiastically recommending estrogen pills to women all over the country. He presented menopause as a “disaster” which could be overcome by estrogen-replacement pills, which would keep women young and healthy and attractive. But who paid for Dr. Wilson’s book and his foundation and lectures to women all over the country? None other than Wyeth, the main drug company manufacturing these HRT pills.

Studies from the early 1970s already showed that estrogen (the main component of HRT pills) increased women’s risks of uterine and breast cancer. So the drug companies created pills that combined estrogen with progestin. Then they encouraged new studies – by hospitals and universities which gave the drug companies the evidence they wanted. The evidence was seemingly so favorable, Wyeth later asked the FDA to approve calling its estrogen pills a preventative measure against heart disease.

But these studies done of women taking estrogen or estrogen with progestin were not exactly scientific. Most were small studies, comparing women taking the HRT pills to those who didn’t. But those women taking the pills came from the wealthier layers of the population or had good medical insurance. They tended to be healthier than the general female population to start with. When these healthier women turned out to have stronger bones, lower cholesterol and fewer heart attacks or strokes, these conditions were attributed to the hormone replacement pills. But there had been no random studies done of all women, which would be the only way to prove whether the pills actually gave the benefits claimed for HRT pills.

The long-term study of HRT begun by the NIH in 1993 raised doubts by 2000. The main part of this study was called off on July 9th. The women in it were told to stop taking the pills. It is very unusual for a national health study to be called off. Some doctors began to call their patients to tell them to stop HRT as well.

After the NIH announcement, Wyeth’s stock fell 24%. So what? Will Wyeth be indicted for making a product which not only didn’t do what it promised, but did the opposite? Will it ever be called to account?

Of course not. Wyeth, and all other drug manufacturers whose studies prove exactly what they want them to prove, will simply find new drugs to push at us profitably.

And the medical establishment – which has long urged half the population practically across the board to take HRT pills based on very small studies – will it ever be called to account? Or what about the government agencies meant to oversee the drug companies. Or the researchers who did the studies Wyeth wanted, researchers who supposedly do only objective scientific research.

The truth is that all these people bear responsibility for thousands of cancers, strokes, heart attacks and deaths. Don’t expect them to answer for it in a society where profit calls the tune.