Cholesterol Con – Where were the doctors?

by Maggie Mahar

After the stock market bubble burst, the New York Times asked: “Where were the analysts? Why didn’t they warn us?”

To be perfectly honest, this was a somewhat disingenuous question. As experienced financial journalists understood all too well, the analysts plugging the high-flying issues of the 1990s were employed by Wall Street firms raking in billions as investors bet their nest eggs on one hot stock after another. It really wasn’t in their employers’ interest for analysts to tell us that their products were wildly overpriced. When a small investor wades into the financial world, there are two words he needs to keep in mind: “caveat emptor.”

But physicians, I firmly believe, are different from the folks employed by Merrill Lynch. (I don’t mean to knock people who work at ML. I am simply saying that they have a very different job description.) When consulting with your doctor, you should not have to be wary. You are not a customer; you are a patient. And your physician is a professional who has pledged to put your interests ahead of his or her own.

This brings me to the question I ask in my headline: during the many years of the Cholesterol Con – where were the doctors? When everyone from the makers of Mazola Corn Oil to the Popes of Cardiology assured us that virtually anyone could ward off heart disease by lowering their cholesterol, why didn’t more of our doctors raise an eyebrow and warn us: “Actually, that’s not what the research shows”?

No doubt, you’ve heard about the recent Business Week cover story, “Do Cholesterol Drugs Do Any Good?”, which blew the lid off the theory that “statins” – drugs like Lipitor, Crestor, Mevacor, Zocor and Pravachol – can cut the odds that you will die of a heart attack by slowing the production of cholesterol in your body and increasing the liver’s ability to remove L.D.L., or “bad cholesterol,” from your blood.

It’s true that these drugs can help some people – but not nearly as many as we have been told. Moreover, and this is the kicker, we don’t have any clear evidence that they work by lowering cholesterol.

Although medical research suggests that statins can definitely benefit one group – men under 70 who already have had a heart attack – researchers are no longer convinced that the drugs stave off a second attack by lowering the patient’s cholesterol. The drugs do lower cholesterol, but that is not what helps the patient.

In other words, researchers are questioning the bedrock assumption that high levels of “bad cholesterol” cause heart disease. “Higher LDL levels do help set the stage for heart disease by contributing to the buildup of plaque in arteries. But something else has to happen before people get heart disease,” Dr. Ronald M. Krauss, director of atherosclerosis research at the Oakland Research Institute, told Business Week. “When you look at patients with heart disease, their cholesterol levels are not that [much] higher than those without heart disease,” he added. “Compare countries, for example. Spaniards have LDL levels similar to Americans’, but less than half the rate of heart disease. The Swiss have even higher cholesterol levels, but their rates of heart disease are also lower. Australian aborigines have low cholesterol but high rates of heart disease.”

“Current evidence supports ignoring LDL cholesterol altogether,” Dr. Rodney A. Hayward, professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan, told Business Week’s reporter.

In recent years, researchers have begun to suspect that statins help patients, not by lowering cholesterol levels, but by reducing inflammation. If this theory is right, “this seems likely to shunt cholesterol reduction into a small corner of the overall picture of heart disease,” the Guardian reported four years ago.

And if the key to statins is that they reduce inflammation, it’s worth keeping in mind that this is what other effective heart treatments like aspirin and the omega three fatty acids found in fish oils, garlic and Vitamin E do – at a much lower cost and with far fewer side effects.

But hold onto your hats, I still haven’t gotten to what is most shocking about the cholesterol story. What raises my blood pressure is the knowledge that Business Week’s scoop isn’t really “new” news.” With all due respect to Business Week, which showed real courage in putting the story on its cover, and to its author, John Carey, who did a superb job of explaining the medical research, the truth is that medical researchers have been questioning the theory that widespread use of statins to lower cholesterol will save lives for many years.

You can find the research questioning the benefits of statins in medical journals like Lancet (2001) and BMJ (2006), as well as in reports from medical conferences (“Tales From the Other Drug Wars,” 1999).

Occasionally, doubts popped up in the mainstream press and then disappeared.

Five years ago, veteran healthcare blogger Matthew Holt pointed to a BMJ article suggesting that statins might be no better than aspirin. That same year, Holt raised pointed questions regarding the risk of taking statins, including possible memory loss.”

Nevertheless, the very next year, the National Cholesterol Education Program at the U.S. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute issued new recommendations that drastically lowered the threshold for statin therapy. According to its 2004 report, people at moderately high risk of developing heart disease (with LDL cholesterol levels between 100 and 129 mg/dL) should be offered statins – even if they have no previous history of heart disease. Statin therapy also should be recommended to very high-risk patients, the panel said, even if their LDL levels are as low as 70. NCEP declared that the recommendations applied to both men and women, regardless of age.

The bottom line: NCEP was urging millions of Americans to go on statins.

Not everyone agreed, recalls Merrill Goozner, editor of “GoozNews,” a top-drawer investigative healthcare blog. In 2004, a few months after the new guidelines came out, a coalition of more than 30 academic physicians and researchers, inspired by Dr. John Abramson (author of Overdosed America: The Broken Promises of American Medicine), decided to write a letter to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI).

Goozner, who does research at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, organized the group. The letter “outlined all the evidence, which was there in published clinical trials for anyone who cared to look,” Goozner recalls, and concluded that while statins, “may lower cholesterol in people at low risk and even many sub-groups at moderate risk of a heart attack … there was no evidence that the drugs actually saved lives.”

How could this be, if statins lower the risk of heart attack, at least for some people? Preventing a heart attack does not necessarily mean that a life is saved. In many statin studies that show lower heart attack risk, the same number of patients end up dying, whether they are taking statins or not. “You may have helped the heart, but you haven’t helped the patient,” says Dr. Beatrice Golomb, an associate professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, and co-author of a 2004 editorial in The Journal of the American College of Cardiology questioning the data on statins. “You still have to look at the impact on the patient overall.”

“The letter we sent to the NHLBI also called for an independent panel to review the evidence,” Goozner notes, “since the NHLBI panel that made the recommendations had been dominated by physicians with ties to statin manufacturers.” Indeed, the National Institutes of Health later admitted that eight of the nine experts on the panel had received financing from one or more of the companies that make statins. (None of the panelists had publicly disclosed their ties to manufacturers when they made their recommendations.)

Just how much “financing” were the panelists receiving? According to the LA Times, from 2001 to 2003 Dr. Bryan Brewer, a leader at the National Institutes of Health, and “part of the team that gave the nation new cholesterol guidelines in 2004” had accepted “about $114,000 in consulting fees from four companies making or developing the cholesterol-lowering drugs.

But “this is relative peanuts compared to Dr P. Trey Sunderland III, a senior psychiatric researcher at the NIH, who took $508,500 in fees from Pfizer, Inc. whilst collaborating with them, and endorsing their drug [Lipitor],” says Dr. Malcolm Kendrick, who is a member of The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics (THINCS) – a growing group of scientists, physicians, other academicians and science writers from various countries.

Dr. Abramson, who is a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School, charges that the study that accompanied the updated 2004 guidelines “knowingly misrepresented the results of the clinical trials that they supposedly relied upon to formulate their recommendations. The problem is that the experts claimed to rely on scientific evidence, but they act as if empowered to ignore the evidence when it is not consistent with their beliefs.”

This is a serious allegation. Keep in mind that statins are the most popular drugs in the history of human medicine. Worldwide sales totaled $33 billion in 2007. More than 18 million Americans now take them.

Nevertheless, “medical research suggests that only about 40 percent to 50 percent of that number are likely to benefit,” says Abramson. “The other 8 or 9 million are exposed to the risks that come with taking statins – which can include severe muscle pain, memory loss, sexual dysfunction – and one study shows increased risk of cancer in the elderly – but there are no studies to show that the drugs will protect these patients against fatal heart attacks.”

Abramson can cite many studies to support his claims. But first, he stresses that statins can help some people.

“Statins show a clear benefit for one group,” he says: “People under 65 who have already had a heart attack or have diabetes. But even in these very high-risk people, about 22 have to be treated for 5 years for one to benefit.”

What about middle-aged people who are not diabetic and have not had a heart attack? A 2006 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine that focused on seven trials involving nearly 43,000 middle-aged adults concluded that statin use did not cut their chances of dying from heart disease.

Is there any benefit for this group? “If they are high risk, statins can be beneficial to people under 65 who haven’t had a heart attack, but 50 such men have to be treated for 5 years for one to benefit,” says Abramson. “The other 49 will not be helped. The problem is that we can’t know who is going to be the 50th man,” he adds. And all 50 will be exposed to the side effects.

Older adults have little to gain. The drugs don’t help people over 70 even if they have elevated cholesterol levels, according to a report in the Journal of American Cardiology.

Finally, “there is no evidence of any benefit for women who don’t already have heart disease or diabetes,” says Abramson. According to a 2004 article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association which reviewed all trials in which women with high cholesterol had been randomly assigned to take a cholesterol-lowering drug or a placebo, there was no evidence that statins prolonged women’s lives or cut their chances of dying of heart disease.

An editorial published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology came to the same conclusion – though there does seem to be a risk that women on statins develop memory loss so severe that their relatives may begin shopping for a nursing home.

Memory loss that can mimic Alzheimer’s is the second most common side effect for people taking statins, right after muscle pain, according to researchers at the University of California at San Diego. For a number of years, they have been running a randomized controlled trial examining the effects of statins on thinking, mood, behavior, and quality of life. Separately, the UCSD researchers have been collecting anecdotal experiences of patients, good and bad, on statins.

“We have some compelling cases,” Dr. Beatrice Golomb, the study’s lead researcher, told the Wall Street Journal. “In one of them, a San Diego woman, Jane Brunzie, was so forgetful that her daughter was investigating Alzheimer’s care for her and refused to let her babysit for her 9-year-old granddaughter. Then the mother stopped taking a statin. ‘Literally, within eight days, I was back to normal – it was that dramatic,’ said Mrs. Brunzie, 69 years old.”

According to the Journal, “Doctors put her on different statins three more times. ‘They’d say, “Here, try these samples.” Doctors don’t want to give up on it,’ she said.’ Within a few days of starting another one, I’d start losing my words again,’ added Mrs. Brunzie, who has gone back to volunteering at the local elementary school she loves and is trying to bring her cholesterol down with dietary changes instead.”

Returning to Goozner’s story, did the letter his group wrote to the NHLBI in 2004, spark public discussion about the new cholesterol guidelines? No. “We released the letter to the press, but the mainstream of the national press ignored us,” Goozner recalls.

In 2008, Goozner is happy to see the statin controversy hit Business Week’s cover – though he can’t help but wonder, “Where were these guys three years ago? Now, call me a cynic, but why does my perverted mind think to itself as I watch this coverage: Yeah, now we hear, just when the world’s best-selling drug [Lipitor] is about to go off patent.”

I suspect Goozer is right. It would have been much harder to publish this story a few years ago.

But there also was a trigger that probably helped spur the Business Week investigation. Last month, Merck-Schering/Plough released a long-awaited study revealing that Vytorin, an expensive combination of two drugs designed to lower cholesterol, brought no added benefits for patients suffering from heart disease.

The two cholesterol-lowering drugs were Zocor, which is a statin, and, Zetia, which is not. When combined, the two drugs did drive cholesterol levels much lower. But the clinical trial offered no evidence that the two cholesterol-busters were more effective in reducing heart attacks than Zocor alone. This raises an obvious question: is cutting cholesterol levels really the key to avoiding heart attacks?

The results of the study helped buttress the strong suspicion that insofar as statins like Zocor do help anyone with heart disease, the beneficial effect has little to do with lowering cholesterol levels.

Meanwhile, Zocor is now available in a generic form that can be purchased for less than $6 for a 30-day supply. By contrast, the new combination, selling under the brand name Vytorin, was fetching more than $100 for a 3 – day supply. In 2006, the drug brought in $1.5 billion with sales climbing 25% in the first half of 2007 to over $2 billion, according to IMS Health.

Naturally, Merck and Schering/Plough, who were marketing Vytorin in a joint venture, were shy about reporting the results of the clinical trials. It was only when they were threatened with a Congressional investigation that they made the results public on January 15 – more than a year and a half after the clinical trials were completed.

The day after the drug-makers released the news, the American Heart Association rushed to their defense, declaring that the study was too limited to draw conclusions about Vytorin’s ability to reduce heart attacks or deaths compared to Zocor alone. The AHA advised patients not to abruptly stop taking Vytorin without consulting with the doctors who had prescribed it.

The New York Times, to its credit, was quick to respond, noting that “what the [American Heart Association] did not note in its statement … was that the group receives nearly $2 million a year from Merck/Schering-Plough Pharmaceuticals, the joint venture that markets Vytorin.

When I return to the saga of the “Cholesterol Con,” in the second installment of this post, I am going to take a closer look at the American Heart Association – and others who stood to gain by persuading Americans of the absolute link between high levels of cholesterol and heart disease.

It is a story that begins long before Pfizer and other drug makers invented statins. And it explains why so few American doctors stood up and questioned the widespread use of drugs like Lipitor.

The belief that cholesterol causes heart disease wasn’t just a theory. It became a matter of faith, brought to us by a motley group that included food companies advertising margarine and corn oil, the American Heart Association, and doctors who joined the bandwagon. At first, the American Medical Association resisted – but soon it too capitulated. Finally, when the American College of Cardiology signed on, it became very difficult for physicians to speak out.

At that point, anyone who questioned the cholesterol connection could easily be painted as “reckless” – a doctor willing to put thousands of lives at risk by encouraging patients to question what had become the Holy Grail of cardiac care.

Part 2

Last week, I wrote about the “cholesterol con,” the widespread belief that “bad cholesterol” (LDL cholesterol) is a major factor driving heart disease, and that cholesterol-lowering drugs like Lipitor and Crestor can protect us against fatal heart attacks. These drugs, which are called “statins,” are the most widely-prescribed pills in the history of human medicine. In 2007 worldwide sales totaled $33 billion. They are particularly popular in the U.S., where 18 million Americans take them.

We thought we knew how they worked. But last month, when Merck/Schering Plough finally released the dismal results of a clinical trial of Zetia, a cholesterol-lowering drug prescribed to about 1 million people, the medical world was stunned. Dr. Steven E. Nissen, chairman of cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic called the findings “shocking.” It turns out that while Zetia does lower cholesterol levels, the study failed to show any measurable medical benefit.

This announcement caused both doctors and the mainstream media to take a second look at the received wisdom that “bad cholesterol” plays a major role in causing cardiac disease. A Business Week cover story asked the forbidden question, “Do Cholesterol Drugs Do Any Good?”

The answer, says Dr. Jon Abramson, a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School, and the author of Overdosed America, is that “statins show a clear benefit for one group – people under 65 who have already had a heart attack or who have diabetes. But,” says Abramson, “there are no studies to show that these drugs will protect older patients over 65 – or younger patients who are not already suffering from diabetes or established heart disease – from having a fatal heart attack. Nevertheless, 8 or 9 million patients who fall into this category continue to take the drugs, which means that they are exposed to the risks that come with taking statins – which can include severe muscle pain, memory loss, and sexual dysfunction.”

Finally – and here is the stunner – it turns out we don’t have any clear evidence that statins help the first group by lowering cholesterol levels. It’s true that they do lower cholesterol, but many researchers are no longer convinced that this is what helps patients avoid a second heart attack. It now seems likely that they work by reducing inflammation. In other words, these very expensive drugs seem to do the same thing that aspirin does. (Are they more effective than the humble aspirin? We’ll need head-to-head studies to find out.)

In the past, some physicians have questioned the connection between high cholesterol and heart disease. After all, as Dr. Ronald M. Krauss, director of atherosclerosis research at the Oakland Research Institute, told Business Week, “When you look at patients with heart disease, their cholesterol levels are not that [much] higher than those without heart disease … Compare countries, for example. Spaniards have LDL levels similar to Americans, but less than half the rate of heart disease. The Swiss have even higher cholesterol levels, but their rates of heart disease are also lower. Australian aborigines have low cholesterol but high rates of heart disease.”

Why then, were we all so certain that HDL cholesterol led to fatal heart attacks? The truth is that we were not “all” so sure. Within the medical profession, there have always been skeptics – particularly in the U.K. But in the U.S., the Popes of cardiology, the American Heart Association and the College of Cardiologist each put their imprimatur on the cholesterol story, insisting on its truth, until finally, it became dogma.

As science writer Gary Taubes pointed out in a recent New York Times Op-ed: “The idea that cholesterol plays a key role in heart disease is so tightly woven into modern medical thinking that it is no longer considered open to question.” Taubes, whose work has appeared in The Best American Science Writing, Science, and the New York Times Magazine, explains that “because medical authorities have always approached the cholesterol hypothesis as a public health issue, rather than as a scientific one, we’re repeatedly reminded that it shouldn’t be questioned. Heart attacks kill hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, statin therapy can save lives, and skepticism might be perceived as a reason to delay action. So let’s just trust our assumptions, get people to change their diets and put high-risk people on statins and other cholesterol-lowering drugs.”

Taubes sees things differently. “Science suggests a different approach: test the hypothesis rigorously and see if it survives.” But when it comes to the cholesterol theory, this is what never happened. Go back to 1950, and you will understand why.

As the second half of the twentieth century began, public health experts were flummoxed by the steep rise in heart attacks. Turn-of-the-century records suggest that heart disease caused no more than 10 percent of all deaths – many more people died of pneumonia or tuberculosis. But by 1950 coronary heart disease, or CHD, was the leading source of mortality in the United States, causing more than 30 percent of all deaths.

One common-sense explanation comes to mind: With improved sanitation, plus new drugs, fewer people were dying of infectious diseases. So they were living long enough to die of a heart attack.

But to many, that didn’t seem sufficient. So in 1949, the National Heart Institute introduced the protocol for the Framingham Study. The research, which began in 1960, set out to investigate the factors leading to cardiovascular disease (CVD) and began with these hypotheses:

1. CVD increases with age. It occurs earlier and more frequently in males.

2. Persons with hypertension developed CVD at a greater rate than those who are not hyper-tensive.

3. Elevated blood cholesterol level is associated with an increased risk of CVD.

4. Tobacco smoking is associated with an increased occurrence of CVD.

5. Habitual use of alcohol is associated with increased incidence of CVD.

6. Increased physical activity is associated with a decrease in the development of CVD.

7. An increase in thyroid function is associated with a decrease in the development of CVD.

8. A high blood hemoglobin or hematocrit level are associated with an increased rate of the development of CVD.

9. An increase in body weight predisposes to CVD.

10. There is an increased rate of the development of CVD in people with diabetes mellitus.

11. There is higher incidence of CVD in people with gout.

Other factors were later added to the list, including HDL and LDL lipid fractions

Ultimately, “the Framingham study determined that higher total cholesterol levels significantly correlate with an increased risk of death from coronary heart disease only through the age of 60” observes “Evidence for Caution: Women and Statin Use,” a well-documented 2007 report from The Canadian Women’s Health Network. Moreover, the research showed that cholesterol was only one of many factors leading to CVD for younger patients.

“Tales From the Other Drug Wars,” a paper presented at a 1999 health conference in Vancouver, also stresses that “The Framingham Study actually found an association between blood cholesterol and coronary heart disease in young and middle-aged men only. No corresponding association was found in women or in the elderly, and it is in the latter group that most of the cases of heart disease occur.” And while the study linked blood cholesterol to heart disease in younger men, the study also found no association between dietary cholesterol (cholesterol that comes from what we eat) and the risk of coronary heart disease, even in young and middle-aged men.

“Dietary saturated fats were not associated with heart disease even after adjusting for other risk factors. Buried deep in the massive number of reports produced from the study is a quote from the investigators saying “… there is, in short, no suggestion of any relationship between diet and the subsequent development of coronary heart disease in the study group.”

Many of the other factors that the Framingham Study investigated – including lack of physical activity, obesity, stress, smoking and alcoholism would prove very important, yet “for a variety of reasons,” the focus shifted to cholesterol” the 2007 Canadian report (“Evidence for Caution”) notes, which now “has become the most prominent and feared risk factor for both women and men – perhaps because it is the most easily modifiable. By contrast there is no pill for the effects of air pollution, which is a substantial risk factor for heart disease, especially for women.”

Thus began what the report calls “the “cholesterolization” of cardiovascular disease – that is, emphasis on a single risk factor … Cholesterol has come to represent a virtual disease state in itself, rather than one risk factor among many, and has distracted from grappling with other risk factors that are strong indicators of cardiovascular disease and cardiovascular risk.”

Yet, as Taubes points out in his NYT Op-ed, the Framingham study did not support this conclusion: The researchers concluded that the molecules that carry LDL cholesterol (low-density lipoproteins) were only ” a ‘marginal risk factor’ for heart disease” while the “cholesterol carried by high-density lipoprotein” actually “lowered the risk of heart disease.”

“These findings led directly to the notion that low-density lipoproteins carry ‘bad’ cholesterol and high-density lipoproteins carry ‘good’ cholesterol,” Taubes explains. “And then the precise terminology was jettisoned in favor of the common shorthand. The lipoproteins LDL and HDL became ‘good cholesterol’ and ‘bad cholesterol’ and the molecule carrying the cholesterol was now conflated with its cholesterol cargo.

“The truth is, we’ve always had reason to question the idea that cholesterol is an agent of disease,” says Taubes. “Indeed, what the Framingham researchers meant in 1977 when they described LDL cholesterol as a “marginal risk factor” is that a large proportion of people who suffer heart attacks have relatively low LDL cholesterol.

“So how did we come to believe strongly that LDL cholesterol is so bad for us?” he asks. “It was partly due to the observation that eating saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol, and we’ve assumed that saturated fat is bad for us. This logic is circular, though: saturated fat is bad because it raises LDL cholesterol, and LDL cholesterol is bad because it is the thing that saturated fat raises.” Yet, he points out, “in clinical trials, researchers have been unable to generate compelling evidence that saturated fat in the diet causes heart disease.

“The other important piece of evidence for the cholesterol hypothesis is that statin drugs like Lipitor lower LDL cholesterol and also prevent heart attacks. The higher the potency of statins, the greater the cholesterol-lowering and the fewer the heart attacks. This is perceived as implying cause and effect: statins reduce LDL cholesterol and prevent heart disease, so reducing LDL cholesterol prevents heart disease. This belief is held with such conviction that the Food and Drug Administration now approves drugs to prevent heart disease, as it did with Zetia, solely on the evidence that they lower LDL cholesterol.

“But the logic is specious because most drugs have multiple actions,” Taubes notes. “It’s like insisting that aspirin prevents heart disease by getting rid of headaches.”

Indeed, as noted above, many researchers now believe that statins help some cardiac patients the way aspirin helps many cardiac patients: not by lowering cholesterol or by easing headaches, but by reducing inflammation.

Nevertheless, in the 1950s, the theory that saturated fat and cholesterol from animal sources raise cholesterol levels in the blood, leading to deposits of cholesterol and fatty material in the arteries that, in turn, leads to fatal heart disease took off. It was called the Lipid theory, and before long food manufacturers would recognize just how much money there was to be made by promoting it.

At the time there was relatively little profit to be made by trying to persuade Americans to stop smoking (smoking cessation clinics still don’t make anyone rich), and expensive gyms that encourage exercise had not yet become widely popular. But there was a fortune to be made by persuading Americans that if they ate foods low in saturated fats, they could live longer.

“The Oiling of America,” a colorful history of the political campaign against animal fat by Mary Enig, a biochemist, nutritionist and former researcher at the University of Maryland, reports that in 1957 the food industry launched a series of ad campaigns that touted the health benefits of products low in fat or made with vegetable oils. A typical ad read: “Wheaties may help you live longer.” Wesson recommended its cooking oil “for your heart’s sake” and Journal of the American Medical Association ad described Wesson oil as a “cholesterol depressant.”

Mazola advertisements assured the public that “science finds corn oil important to your health.” Medical journal ads recommended Fleishmann’s unsalted margarine for patients with high blood pressure. Dr. Frederick Stare, head of Harvard University’s Nutrition Department, encouraged the consumption of corn oil – up to one cup a day – in his syndicated column.

In a promotional piece specifically for Procter and Gamble’s Puritan oil, he cited two experiments and one clinical trial as showing that high blood cholesterol is associated with CHD. Presumably, he was well paid for his work.

Dr. William Castelli, Director of the Framingham Study was one of several specialists to endorse Puritan. Dr. Antonio Gotto, Jr., former AHA president, sent a letter promoting Puritan Oil to practicing physicians – printed on Baylor College of Medicine, The De Bakey Heart Center letterhead.

The American Heart Association also pitched in. In 1956, a year before the food manufacturers’ advertising blitz, an AHA fund-raiser aired on all three major networks, featuring Irving Page and Jeremiah Stamler of the AHA. Panelists presented the lipid hypothesis as the cause of the heart disease epidemic and launched the Prudent Diet, one in which corn oil, margarine, chicken and cold cereal replaced butter, lard, beef and eggs.

(“Stamler would show up again in 1966 as an author of Your Heart Has Nine Lives, a little self-help book advocating the substitution of vegetable oils for butter and other so-called “artery clogging” saturated fats Enig points out in “The Oiling of America.” The book was sponsored by makers of Mazola Corn Oil and Mazola Margarine. Stamler did not believe that lack of evidence should deter Americans from changing their eating habits. The evidence he stated “was compelling enough to call for altering some habits even before the final proof is nailed down … the definitive proof that middle-aged men who reduce their blood cholesterol will actually have far fewer heart attacks waits upon diet studies now in progress.” And of course, we still wait for that definite proof that middle-aged men who do not suffer from established heart disease nevertheless should be on statins.)

“But the television campaign was not an unqualified success Enig continues “because one of the panelists Dr. Dudley White disputed his colleagues at the AHA. Dr. White noted that heart disease in the form of myocardial infarction was nonexistent in 1900 when egg consumption was three times what it was in 1956 and when corn oil was unavailable.

“But the lipid hypothesis had already gained enough momentum to keep it rolling in spite of Dr. White’s nationally televised plea for common sense in matters of diet and in spite of the contradictory studies that were showing up in the scientific literature.”

“The American Medical Association at first opposed the commercialization of the lipid hypothesis Enig reports and warned that “the anti-fat anti-cholesterol fad is not just foolish and futile … it also carries some risk.” The American Heart Association, however, was committed. In 1961 the AHA published its first dietary guidelines aimed at the public.

No doubt many researchers at the AHA were sincere. But it is worth noting that ultimately the AHA would find a way to turn the War Against Cholesterol into a profitable cottage industry.

You’ve probably seen the AHA’s “heart check” logo on numerous food products. No surprise they don’t give them out for free. Food manufacturers pay a first-year fee of $7 500 per product with subsequent renewals priced at $4 500 according to Steve Millay a biostatistician lawyer and adjunct scholar at the conservative Cato Institute who posted about this on “junk science” in 2001.

“There’s gold in the AHA’s credibility Milloy observed. “Several hundred products now carry the heart-check logo. You do the math. Adding insult to injury consumers pay up for the more expensive brands that can afford to dance with the AHA. Pricey Tropicana grapefruit juice is ‘heart healthy’ but supermarket bargain brand grapefruit juice isn’t?”

It wasn’t until 1987 when Merck produced the first statin that the pharmaceutical industry began to get in on the action. But when it joined the party it began to spread the money around not only by advertising but by paying well-placed cardiologists “consulting fees.”

As I noted in last week’s post when the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) published new guidelines in 2004 urging that individual cholesterol levels be monitored from age 20 and that acceptable levels be significantly lower than was previously advised for prevention of cardio vascular disease in both women and men – whether or not they already suffered from established heart disease – eight of the nine doctors on the panel making the recommendations had financial ties to drug makers selling statins. They did not disclose this possible conflict of interest at the time. Both the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology endorsed the panel’s recommendation.

At that point the 2007 Canadian women’s study observes the ‘cholesterization’ of heart disease intensified. Meanwhile, the study notes:

“a year before the U.S. panel came out with the new guidelines the AHRQ the US agency that reviews the quality of healthcare research produced a report on women and heart disease stating that there was insufficient evidence to determine whether lowering lipid levels by any method reduced the risk of heart attack or stroke in women because women were under-represented in trials.

“According to US research, the report adds “high cholesterol in women is not a statistically significant risk factor for sudden cardiac death. On the other hand, smoking is one of the most important predictors of sudden cardiac death in women.” Which makes one wonder: why doesn’t the American Heart Association start a television campaign to try to persuade more women and girls to stop smoking?”

Finally, despite widespread skepticism about statins and cholesterol don’t expect the controversy to end anytime soon. There is just too much money and too much political muscle supporting the theory that 18 million Americans should be on statins.

Millions have been made not only selling statins but also testing patients’ cholesterol levels on an annual basis. As “The Other Drug Wars” puts it “the case of cholesterol illustrates well how the demands for testing and drug interaction: testing leads to increased utilization of cholesterol-lowering drugs which in turn leads to even more testing which in turn leads to more drug utilization.”

In 1999 the authors of “The other Drug Wars” were pessimistic that reason would ever trump hype. Quoting T.J. Moore’s book Heart Failure they noted that “The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute’s eager partners in promoting cholesterol consciousness are the drug companies which are understandably very excited that the government is creating their largest new market in decades … A program that may have truly begun in sincere but somewhat misguided zeal for the public good became very quickly intertwined with greed. The world was learning how much money could actually be made scaring people about cholesterol.”

“Crowds of other agencies and companies have joined in the sustained reinforcement of the importance of cholesterol through the advertisement of their respective products the authors of “The Other Drugs Wars” continued. “One can hardly open a magazine or browse the internet without seeing offerings of the latest anti-cholesterol miracle drug new low-cholesterol wonder diet new life-saving cholesterol treating device or health-conscious cholesterol-lowering food product.

“The voice of evidence questioning the value of directing so many public resources towards cholesterol control was and is still being lost amongst the thousands of advertising messages directed at the public.”

Perhaps the time has come for “the voice of evidence” to make itself heard. It’s not just that money is being wasted – or that close to half of the 18 million Americans taking statins may not benefit. All of them are being exposed to risks which range from serious muscle pain to memory loss that can look like Alzheimer’s. And too often well-meaning physicians who have been sold on statins ignore their complaints.

Originally posted at Health Beat by Maggie Mahar

Author: Maggie Mahar