Networks Dramatize Diabetes Drug Dangers

     “We’re starting with a story that affects hundreds of thousands of Americans because a new study out today says a drug they take increases their chances of having a heart attack and dying,” said anchor Katie Couric on the “CBS Evening News.”


      “Some doctors warn this could become one of the country’s biggest drug catastrophes in recent memory,” said John McKenzie, ABC’s medical science correspondent on “World News.”


      “A new study out tonight says in effect taking the drug might lead to some fatal consequences,” said Brian Williams, anchor of “NBC Nightly News.”


     Those shocking statements referred to the GlaxoSmithKline drug Avandia, which is used to treat Type 2 diabetes. Each of the three networks led its May 21 news broadcast with a study conducted by Dr. Steven Nissen and Kathy Wolski of the Cleveland Clinic on potential side effects of the drug.



     Despite the frightening rhetoric included in the newscasts, Nissen advised discretion when making judgments about use of the drug. “I do not want our study to lead to a public panic,” Nissen said some two minutes into the CBS version of the story. “Patients should not stop taking the drug on the basis of a news report.”



     GlaxoSmithKline’s responses were reported only in a very limited fashion. CBS offered a brief portion of the company's statement that they “strongly disagreed with the findings” and Avandia’s “benefits continue to outweigh any treatment risks.” NBC immediately pointed out GlaxoSmithKline's $3 billion in annual Avandia sales, while adding the same “strongly disagreed with the conclusions” statement and “that other studies prove the drug’s safety.” ABC offered only one sentence from the drug maker: “We believe Avandia’s significant benefits outweigh any treatment risks.”


     All three networks, however, neglected to include more of GlaxoSmithKline’s statements. “Avandia has a cardiovascular safety profile comparable to other oral anti-diabetic medicines,” a company release said. The news reports had no company representatives or doctors who explained the drug's benefits.


     In recent months, the network news has been critical of the pharmaceutical industry and hasn’t allowed the industry to state its case. An in-depth Business & Media Institute report revealed 80 percent of the nightly network stories excluded the viewpoint of the pharmaceutical industry. In this latest case, the company's viewpoint was limited to small one-line snippets.



     The Food and Drug Administration issued a safety alert about the drug, but anchors on all three networks questioned whether the government agency acted adequately in alerting the public. “CBS Evening News” highlighted Rep. Henry Waxman (D.-Calif.), who looked to regulation to address any possible problems.



      “We want to hear from the FDA why it took so long for them to do anything and if they plan to do anything for the future,” Waxman said. Waxman, who chairs the Oversight and Government Reform Committee in the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, currently has a probe underway into pharmaceutical pricing and announced a hearing about the Avandia news immediately after the story broke. However, none of the newscasts offered insight from a politician or expert who traditionally defends the pharmaceutical industry.