A recent study from Hull University has shown that antidepressants such as Prozac or Seroxat, taken by millions in the UK, only have as much effect as placebos. Together with revelations this month that major multinational GlaxoSmithKline delayed informing the authorities that Seroxat increased the likelihood of suicide among teenagers (a fact it was aware of as early as 1998), it seems that drug companies cannot be trusted to self-regulate.

With one in five people in the UK suffering from depression at some point in their lives and many millions of NHS prescriptions written for antidepressants every year, health experts have described the findings as ‘fantastically important.’ A British Medical Journal poll among doctors found that almost three-quarters of respondents agreed that anti-depressant prescribing should change in the wake of the results.

But why, when antidepressant prescribing is so widespread, have the findings come as such a surprise to doctors? The clues come from the study’s methodology. The British and American experts involved looked at the clinical trials submitted by drug companies to gain approval for four common selective serotonin uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) – Prozac, Efexor and Seroxat. They found that drug companies had selectively published data from trials to make their products look more effective.

Critics have long accused big pharmaceuticals such as GlaxoSmithKline of putting profits before people, gaining from their suffering. Drug companies respond by saying that their extravagant profits are essential – necessary to fund advances in frontier areas of medicine such as cancer and AIDS research. Who should we believe?

It’s a complex issue, and one we discuss in depth in our new title, Pocket Issue: Pandemics.

Marketing Misery: Antidepressants and drug companies