Legal Threats to Shut Up a Critic
Recently, a British Medical Journal news article explained how Merck tried to shut up an Italian physician who dared criticize another of its drugs, Zetia (ezetimibe).
The Italian branch of the drug company Merck Sharp and Dohme (MSD) has stopped a leading public health doctor and administrator from circulating texts to GPs advising them about the use of one of the company’s drugs.In the texts, Alberto Donzelli—the head of education, appropriateness, and evidence based medicine at the public health authority of Milan (Milan Healthcare)—had analysed the published evidence on the cholesterol lowering drug ezetimibe and discouraged its prescription in addition to statins.
A letter telling Donzelli to 'cease and desist' was sent in February by MSD’s medical director, Patrizia Nardini, and was cosigned by the company’s director of legal affairs. They accused Donzelli of serious misconduct and a breach of medical ethics and threatened to sue him and Milan Healthcare for as much as €1.3m (£1m; $1.78m).
Dr Donzelli was defended by Dr Roberto Carlo Rossi, the Director of the Order of Physicians of Milan, the local regulatory body,
Rossi replied in April, declaring that the medical commission had analysed and discussed the issue in depth and concluding that there was no reason to object on ethical grounds to Donzelli’s behaviour.
in late May the company sent a second 'cease and desist' letter to Donzelli
In mid-June, Donzelli bowed to the request and removed the relevant material from his website....
The Anechoic Effect Trumped
Up to then, the story line was familiar. We have often noted the anechoic effect, that facts or ideas that offend the rich and powerful in health care often get little circulation, have few echoes. Health care professionals' may fear that speaking out may lead to great unpleasantness. Self-censorship may be reinforced by knowledge that the pervasiveness of conflicts of interest in health care means that one's friends, colleagues, family members, or more particularly supervisors are likely to have financial relationships with big health care corporations. Similarly, those in the media and in the medical and health care scholarly literature may have similar fears, knowing that advertising revenue often comes from health care corporations, and their executives and boards may have their own conflicts of interest.
But in this case, Dr Donzelli was not cowed at first. Furthermore, neither was the BMJ, and then some people in the media. Instead of quieting the issue, Merck's legal threats resulted in the BMJ news article. Then, in short order, the story was picked up by Larry Husten blogging for Forbes, and by Ed Silverman's PharmaLot blog for the Wall Street Journal. Amazingly, this time it only took Merck one day after this negative publicity to change its position. Per Matthew Herper, again in Forbes,
Merck says that it 'regrets' using legal threats to push a leading Italian researcher to muffle his public critiques of one of the company’s cholesterol drugs.
Herper was able to get confirmation from Merck spokesman Steve Cragle who said
the physician would be able to post his arguments about the drug, ezetimibe, on his web site again without fear of legal reprisal coming from Merck.So in this case, sunlight was an effective disinfectant. Perhaps if some of the health care professionals who have silently acquiesced to pressure to maintain the anechoic effect decided they would not take it any more, there could be a lot more disinfection.
Note that Merck seems to have a chronic problem with honest discussion about Zetia (as well as Vioxx). In 2007, we first blogged about reports that Merck had suppressed results of clinical research that showed the drug could cause adverse effects on the liver. Eventually in 2013, a Reuters article that somehow got by us at the time, but was summarized in FiercePharma, announced that Merck would "pay $688 million to settle two U.S. class-action lawsuits by shareholders who said they lost money because the company concealed the poor results of a clinical trial of the anti-cholesterol drug Vytorin [a combination drug that included ezetimibe]." Although, "the settlements include no admission of liability or wrongdoing. 'There's probably some merit (to the claims) or they wouldn't have settled for such a large amount,' Judson Clark, a health care analyst with Edward Jones,..."
Merck managers, like many other health care leaders, got away with making facts and opinions they did not like taboo as topics of conversation for a long time. Maybe if the health care leaders who are used to producing the anechoic effect for their own benefit saw that doing so will not be so easy in the future, the fog that obscures honest discussion of health care dysfunction might start to lift. True health care reform would enable such honest discussion, no matter who among the powerful it might offend.
ADDENDUM (8 July, 2014) - See also comments in the Shearlings Got Plowed blog.