What kind of government would try to foist on one quarter of its population a drug which, at great public expense and for no seriously justifiable benefit, risked turning its users into diabetics, depressives and sufferers of chronic fatigue and erectile dysfunction?
The Cameron Coalition, apparently.
Next month, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence is expected to roll out a measure which could see men over 50 and women over 60 being advised by their doctors to take statins. If you believe the “experts”, statins are the virtually side-effect-free miracle drug which dramatically lowers cholesterol levels and reduces the incidents of strokes and heart disease. The question is, though, do you believe a panel of experts who in at least eight cases are known to have ties to the pharmaceutical companies who make this wonder drug?
There are many doctors and academics who don’t. Nine of them, led by Sir Richard Thompson, the president of the Royal College of Physicians, have written to the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt warning that the plan – which could see as many as 12 million people being medicated on statins – could have “worrying” consequences.
The benefits have been exaggerated, they say, and the side-effects underestimated in a series of studies that cannot be relied on because they were funded by pharmaceutical firms with vested interests.
So who should we trust?
My immediate instinct would be to side with Big Pharma. Not that I think that the pharmaceutical industry is a paragon of virtue, by any stretch. But the way it’s caricatured by the left you’d think that its sole purpose was to enrich itself by poisoning everyone, whereas I suspect that, actually, on balance, its interests lie in making us feel better not worse. I’m also suspicious of the “funded-by” criticism, another standard leftist slur. It seems to me entirely healthy and proper that the pharmaceuticals industry should fund its studies and that this is not, in and of itself, a reason not to trust them. It’s what’s known as the “motive fallacy.”
But there are two reasons why I’m siding with the objectors. The first is a very persuasive recent article in the Spectator Health supplement by Dr James Le Fanu.
He notes first that the benefits of statins are marginal, with no significant effect on overall mortality. And that, second, the side-effects may have been woefully underestimated.
I first became aware of the scale of this hidden epidemic of apparent statin-induced symptoms after describing in my Telegraph column the experience of a man in his seventies whose general health following the successful repair of an aortic aneurysm had gradually deteriorated to a state (as he described it) of ‘chronic decrepitude’ — such that when flying to Hawaii to attend his son’s wedding he had required a wheelchair at the various stopovers. Yet returning three weeks later he had walked back through Heathrow — having forgotten to pack the statins he had been taking since his operation.
This account of his near-miraculous recovery following his statin-free excursion prompted hundreds of letters and emails from readers describing their own similar experiences. Those who had been previously fit and well were usually quick to spot the adverse effects on their wellbeing: ‘Within a couple of weeks I went from an active 65-year-old to a doddering old man,’ as one put it. Most only realised the devastating impact of statins on their lives when advised by friends and relatives to stop taking them.
The other reason I’m with the anti-statins camp is because we’ve been here before with this government – and with a frequency I find very troubling.
Consider HS2 – the high speed rail service that almost nobody actually wants save the contractors (such as Siemens), management consultants and other parasites who’ll make a fortune out of it at taxpayer’s expense. Instead of shelving the hare-brained scheme – as all the evidence suggests it should – the government has resolutely stuck by a small number of misleading reports produced by tame experts who’ve been generously paid to say the right thing.
Or wind farms. The people who have to live anywhere near them hate them. There’s also a growing body of evidence to suggest that, besides chopping up birds and bats, ruining views and wiping out property values, they also have serious potential health impacts. Yet the government remains committed to erecting them all over Britain in line with a renewables policy based on establishment “science” even more suspect than Big Pharma’s pro-statins studies.
Or plain cigarette packaging. The evidence on this one is clear too: it doesn’t work. They tried it in Australia and cigarette sales actually increased. Yet still the Department of Health claims to be “minded to introduce regulations for standardised packaging of tobacco products “, despite the fact that according to a report commissioned from Sir Cyril Chantler the effect would be modest.
What all these cases have in common is that they are the acts of an instinctively authoritarian, anti-liberty government in thrall to special interest groups and apparently oblivious to real world evidence. You expect this sort of thing from left-wing administrations. But when even Conservative-led governments start acting this way you worry for the future of freedom and democracy.