Six Decades of False and Misleading Marketing
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 (viewed as barbaric by animal rights activists) 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.
Mares strapped up to produce Premarin
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, as a “healthy” or natural estrogen level in a post-menopausal woman is virtually zero.
1975: the First Study Linking Premarin with Cancer
The first study linking Premarin with increased uterine cancer appeared in 1975. It was replicated by other researchers in 1977 and 1979. These results were entirely consistent with the discovery of estrogen receptors in the early seventies and the finding that stimulating these receptors caused tumor growth in tissue culture and laboratory animals.
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. Unfortunately most doctors fell for Wyeth’s slick PR campaign (the free pens, watches, clocks, lunches, trips to overseas conferences may have had something to do with it). They also overlooked the failure of 1980 study to look at the cancer rates in women who took no hormone replacement or to study the possible role of this combination in inducing other hormone sensitive cancers, like breast and ovarian cancer. In fact, their success in selling doctors on the combination, led Wyeth to market a new drug Prempro, which combined Premarin with estrogens.
The earliest studies linking Premarin with breast cancer appeared in early 1980. As Nik Ismail points out 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 (see http://www.gfmer.ch/Books/bookmp/113.htm).
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. (Note: the role of estrogen replacement in reducing osteoporosis has been replicated in other studies, but so far, none of them control 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 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. Predictably, the claim that Premarin and Prempro reduce elderly women;s risk of cardiovascular disease proved to be false. In fact 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 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, appealing 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.
Wyeth Stock Soars
The result of Wyeth’s public relations effort was to make Premarin was the most commonly prescribed drug in the US in 1992. Yet by the mid-nineties, even the mainstream media was starting to take note of the preponderance of studies linking estrogen replacement to cancer. In 1995 this resulted in a Time magazine article (Wallis, C. “A Risky Elixir of Youth” Time. (26), 46-56, 1995), followed by a Tom Brokaw feature on NBC’s nightly news.
To be continued, with a description of the PR blitz Wyeth launched to counter the frightening results of the 2002 WHI study.