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An Eye-Opening Look at the Legal Drug Trade

OVERDOSE The Case Against the Drug Companies; By Jay S. Cohen, M.D.; Tarcher/Putnam; 318 pages, $24, hardcover

November 26, 2001|Linda Marsa

Side effects--or "adverse reactions"--from prescription medications kill more than 100,000 Americans--more than AIDS, alcohol, infectious diseases or auto accidents--and seriously injure 2 million others every year. Jay S. Cohen, a professor of medicine at UC San Diego, has written an eye-opening look at how drugs are developed in the United States, and a useful guide on how the average consumer can avoid becoming another statistic. The book illuminates some of the reasons these unnecessary deaths occur. It lays the blame for this "side-effect epidemic" squarely on the pharmaceutical industry and the way in which it tests and markets drugs.

The drug companies, Cohen writes, often use a one-size-fits-all approach to determining dosages of medications. However, this doesn't take into account individual variations, such as gender and age, which means millions of people may be ingesting toxic doses of common medicines. And unpleasant reactions prompt millions more to discontinue vital treatments for serious ills, such as high blood pressure, osteoporosis and depression.

Some of what Cohen writes about is familiar territory for drug industry critics: how companies can slant research to make results appear more favorable, hide negative findings or spend millions to influence doctors' prescribing decisions.

He also cites failings of the Food and Drug Administration, noting instances in which drugs were pulled from the market because of safety concerns, and makes a case that the agency doesn't adequately monitor drugs after they've gone to market.

The central message of the book, however, is that people are overmedicated. Cohen believes that the only way for consumers to circumvent these problems is to become informed about lower, safer drug doses. To this end, the book includes practical advice on dozens of common prescription medications for those who are most at risk: the elderly, women and children.

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