(Part I of a two part series on the dangerous and cancer causing campaign by Wyeth Pharmaceuticals to “medicalize” menopause for profit),
I have written previously (see The Multibillion Dollar Depression Industry and Drug Companies: Killing Kids for profit) about the ingenious – and deadly – strategy by pharmaceutical companies of inventing fictitious illnesses to market highly profitable drugs that allegedly “treat” them. The technical terms for this are “medicalizing” or “disease mongering.” In her 2004 The Truth About the Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What To Do About It, Dr Marcia Angell talks about “generalized anxiety disorder,” “erectile dysfunction,” “premenstrual dysphoric disorder,” and “gastro-esophogeal reflux disorder (heartburn).” These are other common complaints that drug companies have reinvented as chronic illnesses requiring lifelong treatment.
Estrogen Deficiency Syndrome
Based on 30 years of research linking it to reproductive cancers, the marketing of so-called “estrogen deficiency syndrome” has been far more lethal. The condition is known as “menopause” in English-speaking countries. Other cultures have no word for it. The number of premature deaths from the so-called treatment – “hormone replacement therapy (HRT)” – is the millions.
In this case the culprit is a single company, Wyeth, which manufactures Premarin (conjugated estrogens extracted from pregnant mare urine) and Prempro, a combination of estrogen and progesterone (a second female hormone).
Estrogen, a hormone regulating the development and function of the female reproductive system, was first discovered in 1925. In the 1930s, the drug company Wyeth developed a process to extract conjugated estrogens from the urine of pregnant mares. They patented their product as the drug Premarin (PREgnantMAresurINe), which first appeared on the market in 1942.
From the beginning Wyeth marketed Premarin, not for temporary relief of menopausal symptoms, but as a lifelong treatment to help all women maintain “healthy” estrogen levels in later life. Obviously this is nonsense. A “healthy” or natural estrogen level in a post-menopausal woman is virtually zero.
Although the medical community (and Wyeth) have been aware of links between estrogen replacement and breast, uterine and ovarian cancer since the 1970s, this research was effectively concealed from the public. Until the frightening results of the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) study hit the front page in 2002. Between 1993 and 1995, the National Institutes of Health enrolled 161,809 women in the double blind WHI study. In 2002 the NHI shut down the study. Although it was originally scheduled to finish in 2005, it was painfully obvious that the women taking HRT were experiencing a 26% increase in breast cancer (with the risk doubling after five years), a 41% increase in strokes and a 29% increase in heart disease.
1975: the First Study Linking Premarin with Cancer
The first study linking Premarin with uterine cancer appeared in 1975. It was replicated by other researchers in 1977 and 1979. Wyeth responded to these worrisome studies by promoting a small 1980 study that taking progesterone, a second female hormone, reduced the risk of uterine cancer with estrogen replacement.
Sadly, most doctors fell for Wyeth’s slick PR campaign. Thanks to all the free pens, watches, clocks, lunches and trips to overseas conferences, they conveniently overlooked the failure of Wyeth’s 1980 study to at cancer rates in women who took no hormone replacement or to study the possible role of combined treatment in inducing other hormone sensitive cancers, such as breast and ovarian cancer. Wyeth’s success in selling doctors on combined treatment would lead them to launch Prempro, a combination of Premarin and progesterone, in 1995.
The earliest studies linking Premarin with breast cancer appeared in early 1980. According to Nik Ismail in “Hormone Replacement Therapy and Gynaecological Cancers,” between 1975 and 1995, there were at least fifty studies linking estrogen replacement (also known as HRT) with breast and uterine cancer. Some were cross cultural studies revealing American women had more than ten times the incidence of breast cancer than Asian women, who don’t take estrogen replacement.
The Multibillion Dollar Wyeth Cover-up
Wyeth responded to the breast cancer studies with a new PR blitz. In addition to flooding doctors’ offices with literature claiming studies linking Premarin to cancer were “contradictory,” they promoted numerous company-funded studies allegedly showing that estrogen replacement prevents osteoporosis and hip fractures, dementia and heart disease. The spin Wyeth gave doctors was that the effect of reducing cardiovascular disease (heart disease and strokes) — the most common cause of death in Americans – outweighed the somewhat lower risk of developing breast cancer.
Ultimately the claim that Premarin and Prempro reduce elderly women’s risk of cardiovascular disease proved to be false. This was one of the main reasons the WHI study was stopped: the women in the Premarin/Prempro arm of the study were developing significantly more heart attacks, strokes and dementia.
The WHI points to some role for estrogen replacement in reducing osteoporosis. However no studies have ever controlled for long term fluoride ingestion or epidemic Vitamin D deficiency in elderly Americans – which both have a documented role in high US rates of osteoporosis and hip fracture.
The marketing blitz aimed at doctors was accompanied by an even more powerful PR campaign in Harper’s Bazaar, the Ladies Home Journal and other women’s magazines. The goal was to appeal to American women’s (largely manufactured) terror of aging by emphasizing the value of estrogen replacement in preserving sexual attractiveness by preventing the skin changes and vaginal drying associated with aging.
To be continued.