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TIME's heart cover story raises serious ad/news questions

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TIME magazine must be very happy with whatever deal it struck with Pfizer for advertising in the September 5, 2005 cover story, “How To Stop A Heart Attack.”

But let me count the ways this story and the ads bother me:

1. Inside of the cover story article is a fold-out three-page ad spread for Lipitor, a statin drug made by Pfizer. That’s a fold-out right in the middle of the editorial content. What wall between editorial and sales is supposed to exist?

2. The ad says, “Reduce your risk of a heart attack by 36% if you have multiple risk factors for heart disease.” OK, but that’s 36% of what baseline risk? This is another abuse that happens when journalists or advertisers cite only the relative risk, not the absolute risk. Could it be a change from 3 in 100 to 2 in 100? That’s about a 36% relative risk reduction. But only a 1% absolute risk reduction, not quite as impressive. People selling drugs tend to use only relative risks for obvious reasons.

3. Three pages later is another Lipitor ad citing the same 36% risk reduction statistic and the ad even says, “It’s certainly worth repeating.” I would say it’s certainly worth clarifying and telling the whole story. This second ad also appeared within the body of the TIME cover story.

4. On the next page is a story that asks readers, “Do You Know Your Calcium Score?” under the heading “The Newest Risk Factor.” Since when? Which evidence-based scientific body proclaimed a calcium score as a new risk factor? And at what level? While the sidebar does contain some caveats, it’s hard to get past the disease-mongering style of the headline, implying that readers should, indeed, run off to be tested to find how much calcium is in their arteries. Maybe it’ll even lead to a new prescription for Lipitor.

5. Six pages later in the same issue is a Pfizer ad announcing that it sponsors the “Paging Dr. Gupta” program on CNN. TIME and CNN are owned by the same conglomerate. (21 pages later in the same issue is a Pfizer ad for Viagra. Must have been a red letter day for the sales department!)

6. Four pages later in the same issue is an ad pointing readers to a Pfizer-sponsored section on the TIME website, time.com/heart.

7. When I went to that site, I found 3 ads for, or mentions of, Lipitor, Pfizer’s statin heart drug, on the home page. I found stories, one five years old, praising statins. This story used only relative risks in saying that statins had been proven to reduce deaths among heart attack survivors by 40% (40% of what?).

Commercialism in the spread of health and medical news is, I believe, the most disturbing trend in health journalism. This TIME cover story is a prime example.

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