Why Doctors are So Drug Happy

Who funds most of the studies that show drugs are safe and effective? The drug companies themselves. This is the topic of my video Eliminating Conflicts of Interest in Medical Research.

“It is self-evidently absurd to look to investor-owned companies for unbiased evaluations of their own products…One result of the bias in this literature is that physicians learn to practice a very drug-intensive style of medicine. Even when lifestyle changes would be more effective, physicians and their patients often believe that for every ailment there is a drug.” It’s gotten so bad that “[p]hysicians can no longer rely on the medical literature for valid and reliable information.” That’s quite an accusation. Says who? Says a long-time editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world.

To help expose some of the conflicts of interest corrupting the medical profession, the Drug Company Gift Disclosure Act was introduced in Congress where it died year after year until it was successfully integrated into the Affordable Care Act. Now, there’s a database detailing which doctors get the billions of dollars that are dished out, “permit[ting] patients to make better informed decisions when choosing health care professionals and making treatment decisions.” (I explain how you can easily look up your own doctor in my video Find Out If Your Doctor Takes Drug Company Money.)

In 2008, medical groups endorsed a version of the Act that didn’t require public disclosure unless doctors got at least $500 in gifts, but the 2009 version got stricter, requiring disclosure if you pocketed even $100, leading groups like the American Academy of Family Physicians to start to get a bit nervous. The final wording in Obamacare, however, requires disclosure of even a $10 meal, leading countries around the world to look to the United States for leadership in healthcare ethics. You don’t see that every day!

Now that we have this massive public record, we can really see how honest doctors have been. The financial disclosures by the authors of all the American College of Cardiology and American Heart Association guidelines were matched to the public disclosures of the hundreds of thousands of dollars they received from Big Pharma. The result? “The overall agreement between author and company disclosure was poor.” Nationally, female physicians each received thousands of dollars less than male doctors on average from drug companies each year, though it’s not clear if this is because the women were more ethical or the industry was sexist.

What about conflicts of interest for online clinical support websites? “Point-of-care evidence-based medicine websites allow physicians to answer clinical queries using recent evidence at the bedside” of a patient. Clinicians caring for patients are increasingly reviewing treatment recommendations on these sites to make clinical decisions in real time. For instance, if you’re with a patient, you can just whip out your phone and check one. It’s important that “[m]embers of groups developing formal clinical guidelines are discouraged from interacting with the health industry in a manner that may create a conflict of interest.” Researchers examined one such website called UpToDate, which seemed to provide the most comprehensive diagnoses. Did they find any conflicts of interest? Yes, in every single UpToDate article they examined.

So what do we do with this information? Let’s say we see an article claiming that candy consumption is not associated with health risks and the authors disclose that their research was supported by the National Confectioners Association, a group that used to run ads that said things like: “Put candy in their school lunch. It’s good for them.” We may want to take the results of that article with a grain of salt.

“The problem with financial COIs [conflicts of interest] is that you simply don’t know what to believe.” Maybe this “preoccupation with disclosure hijacked the debate…” Maybe, as Dr. Kassirer, the former chief editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, critiqued, the focus instead should be on eliminating commercial conflicts, not just disclosing them. It’s like campaign finance reform, where the issue is managed more by public disclosure rather than getting money out of politics. Indeed, he writes that “the vast attention paid to failure to disclose conflicts of interest is misplaced, and that more attention must be focused on the financial conflicts themselves.”

After Dr. Kassirer effectively resigned from the New England Journal of Medicine, disillusioned with the direction they were taking, Dr. Marcia Angell took over. She was the first female chief editor in the journal’s hundred-year history and lasted about a year. Medical journals “consistently refer to ‘potential’ conflicts of interest,” she wrote, “as though that were different from the real thing, and about disclosing and ‘managing’ them, not about prohibiting them. In short, there seems to be a desire to eliminate the smell of corruption, while keeping the money. Breaking the dependence of the medical profession on the pharmaceutical industry will take more than appointing committees and other gestures. It will take a sharp break from an extremely lucrative pattern of behavior.”


Why do funding sources matter? See my video Disclosing Conflicts of Interest in Medical Research.

The shameful practices of supposed science-based medicine websites, like UpToDate, are the very reason I started NutritionFacts.org in order to share the best available evidence without corrupting commercial influence. If you value my work, please consider becoming a supporter by making a recurring monthly donation to the 501c3 nonprofit that keeps NutritionFacts.org growing and thriving.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Chocolate is Finally Put to the Test

Botanically speaking, seeds are small embryonic plants—the whole plant stuffed into a tiny seed and surrounded by an outer layer packed with vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals to protect the seedling plant’s DNA from free radicals. No wonder they’re so healthy. By seeds, using the formal definition, we’re talking all whole grains; grains are seeds—you plant them and they grow. Nuts are just dry fruits with one or two seeds. Legumes (beans, peas, and lentils) are seeds, too, as are cocoa and coffee beans. So, finding health-promoting effects in something like cocoa or coffee should not be all that surprising. There is substantial evidence that increased consumption of all these little plants is associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

Of course, much of chocolate research is just on how to get consumers to eat more. While it didn’t seem to matter what kind of music people were listening to when it came to the flavor intensity, pleasantness, or texture of a bell pepper, people liked chocolate more when listening to jazz than classical, rock, or hip hop. Why is this important? So food industries can “integrate specific musical stimuli” in order to maximize their profits. For example, purveyors may play jazz in the background to increase consumers’ acceptance of their chocolates. Along these lines, another study demonstrated that people rated the oyster eaten “more pleasant in the presence of the ‘sound of the sea’ than in the presence of ‘farmyard noises.’”

You’d think chocolate would just sell itself, given that it’s considered the most commonly craved food in the world. The same degree of interest doesn’t seem to exist as to whether or not Brussels sprouts might provide similar cardiovascular protection. So, it’s understandable to hope chocolate provides health benefits. Meanwhile, despite their known benefits, Brussels sprouts don’t get the love they deserve.

One of the potential downsides of chocolate is weight gain, which is the subject of my Does Chocolate Cause Weight Gain? video. Though cocoa hardly has any calories, chocolate is one of the most calorie-dense foods. For example: A hundred calories of chocolate is less than a quarter of a bar, compared to a hundred calories of strawberries, which is more than two cups..

A few years ago, a study funded by the National Confectioners Association—an organization that, among other things, runs the website voteforcandy.com—reported that Americans who eat chocolate weigh, on average, four pounds less than those who don’t. But maybe chocolate-eaters exercise more or eat more fruits and vegetables. The researchers didn’t control for any of that.

The findings of a more recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine were less easy to dismiss and there were no apparent ties to Big Chocolate. The researchers reported that out of a thousand men and women they studied in San Diego, those who frequently consumed chocolate had a lower BMI—actually weighed less—than those who ate chocolate less often. And this was even after adjusting for physical activity and diet quality. But, it was a cross-sectional study, meaning a snapshot in time, so you can’t prove cause and effect. Maybe not eating chocolate leads to being fatter, or maybe being fatter leads to not eating chocolate. Maybe people who are overweight are trying to cut down on sweets. What we need is a study in which people are followed over time.

There was no such prospective study, until now. More than 10,000 people were followed for six years, and a chocolate habit was associated with long-term weight gain in a dose-response manner. This means the greatest weight gain over time was seen in those with the highest frequency of chocolate intake. It appears the reason the cross-sectional studies found the opposite is that subjects diagnosed with obesity-related illnesses tended to reduce their intake of things like chocolate in an attempt to improve their prognosis. This explains why heavier people may, on average, eat less chocolate.

To bolster this finding came the strongest type of evidence—an interventional trial—in which you split people up into two groups and change half their diets. Indeed, adding four squares of chocolate to peoples’ daily diets does appear to add a few pounds.

So, what do we tell our patients? In 2013, researchers wrote in the American Family Physician journal that “because many cocoa products are high in sugar and saturated fat, family physicians should refrain from recommending cocoa….” That’s a little patronizing, though. You can get the benefits of chocolate without any sugar or fat by adding cocoa powder to a smoothie, for example. Too often, doctors think patients can’t handle the truth. Case in point: If your patients inquire, one medical journal editorial suggest, ask them what type of chocolate they prefer. If they respond with milk chocolate, then it is best to answer that it is not good for them. If the answer is dark chocolate, then you can lay out the evidence.


Even better than dark chocolate would be cocoa powder, which contains the phytonutrients without the saturated fat. I’ve happily (and deliciously) created other videos on cocoa and chocolate, so check out Update on Chocolate, Healthiest Chocolate Fix, A Treatment for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Dark Chocolate and Artery Function. 

Whether with Big Candy, Big Chocolate, or some other player, you always have to be careful about conflict of interest. For more information, watch my Food Industry Funded Research Bias video.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: