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Healthy Skepticism Library item: 5479

Warning: This library includes all items relevant to health product marketing that we are aware of regardless of quality. Often we do not agree with all or part of the contents.


Publication type: news

Richards D.
The optimistic sceptic
Sydney Morning Herald 2006 Jul 13


Ralph Faggotter’s comments:

Within this article is a potted history of the evolution of our organisation courtesy of a thumbnail biographical sketch of Healthy Skepticism’s director- Peter Mansfield.

Full text:

The optimistic sceptic
Deb Richards
Sydney Morning Herald July 13, 2006

Peter Mansfield has fought for more than two decades to keep drug companies
honest, writes Deb Richards.

For nearly 25 years Dr Peter Mansfield has been a “David”, battling the
goliaths of the pharmaceutical industry.

The general practitioner found his mission while working in Bangladesh in
the 1980s, where he saw some shocking examples of drug marketing, including
anabolic steroids being sold as growth promoters in children.

Mansfield wrote to his father: “I’ve been very busy … [doing] a little
informal research on what the drug multinationals are doing here. They are
very immoral.”

Mansfield became an activist. Back in Australia, he worked a few days a week
as a GP while forming an action group called Medical Lobby for Appropriate

He launched a letter-writing offensive and enlisted heavyweight medical
researchers and academics from around the world into his lobby group. He
focused on bad practices in the Third World, writing to the head offices of
the world’s major pharmaceutical companies.

He would quote the company advertising, cite the research and then question
the evidence for the claims the company was making. The eminent members
would add their signatures – and their clout.

Sometimes the pharmaceutical companies would reply to his assault. Sometimes
they even acted on the complaints.

Mansfield claims 11 products were withdrawn or reformulated as a result and
about 60 advertising campaigns were altered or stopped.

His campaigning won international respect, but this came at a cost – he
crashed into a bleak period in the ’90s. “It was a treadmill, and the mouse
was me.”

Financial strain and a family buckling under the pressure of his workload
combined with a realisation that the abuses that had galvanised him in the
Third World had changed. So he turned his focus to the marketing processes
the companies were pursuing in the developed world, including Australia.

His organisation was recast as HealthySkepticism, which aims to build
awareness of marketing techniques and the effect of seductive gifts to
medical practitioners.

“Ethical guidelines have stopped the lavish gifts to doctors – holidays and
golf trips – but research is showing the psychological effect of little
gifts from drug reps, like the name of a product on a notepad, actually has
more persuasive impact than the big gifts,” he says.

Mansfield cites the recent Vioxx case as an example of market push and
company tactics that won out over professional doctor caution.

“The arthritis pain relief drug was estimated to have caused several
thousand heart attacks in Australia before it was withdrawn,” he says.

“It occurred because doctors were misled into believing the drug was safer
than it really was.” Mansfield says this was achieved by advertising that
emphasised evidence suggesting the drug was safer for people’s stomachs than
previous medicines. “It distracted attention away from evidence that it was
deleterious to the heart.”

HealthySkepticism aims to educate doctors and their patients on misleading
drug promotions. Mansfield speaks at medical conferences and lectures
medical students. He’s busy completing a PhD on the subject and writing a
document on “responding to drug promotion” for the World Health

He feels it has been worthwhile. “I’m more optimistic now than at any point
in the past 20 years. I think we are heading for a tipping point where the
medical profession and patients are developing a much healthier level of
scepticism about the advertised benefits of highly promoted medicines.”


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