Saturday, March 8, 2008

Seroxat and Ribena

In The Cockroach Catcher, Dr Am Ang Zhang had an interesting discussion with his Junior who had just transferred from one of the top London teaching hospitals:

“Do you agree that Leroy has Social Phobia ? Everything fitted in with the criteria in DSM IV.” My junior plucked up courage to ask me during supervision.

It was good to keep oneself on one’s toes with juniors who had just arrived from London and who read up on everything.

“What’s wrong with shyness?” I joked, “Do you want me to put him on SSRI (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors)?”

“It is supposed to work.”

“If he starts taking SSRI at thirteen, what is he going to do for the rest of his life?!”

“The newer short acting ones are supposed to be better.”

“Take one advice from me; think the opposite, the opposite to what the big Pharmas tell you. In pharmacology, shorter acting drugs are more addictive. That was what I learned in Medical School and is still true if you think carefully about it.”

Today’s Times headline: No prosecution on suicide-risk drug.

“A report suggested that GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) knew about safety risks but failed to report them to the medicines safety watchdog for five years.”

The drug concerned is Paroxetine and in the UK marketed as Seroxat and in the US as Paxil.

“GSK submitted data from clinical trials to the MHRA in May 2003 showing that patients under 18 had a six or sevenfold increased risk of suicidal behaviour if they were treated with Seroxat than if they received a placebo. Data also showed that the drug was not effective for treating depression in children and adolescents. Leaked documents suggested that GSK had known about these results as early as 1998.”

Keen eyed bloggers would have noticed Paxil CR in a previous posting of mine about how GlaxoSmithKline had all their Paxil CR and Avandamet seized in the U.S.

Now the story of Ribena has to be one of those sweet (sorry) stories one remembers for a long, long time.

Anna Devathasan (left) and Jenny Suo, New Zealand

Photo by Martin Sykes

In 2004 a science experiment by two 14-year-old high school girls in New Zealand brought embarrassment to the world's second-largest food and pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline, whose Ribena sale is around $8 million a year.

"We thought we were doing it wrong, we thought we must have made a mistake," Anna said when they found negligible vitamin C level in the Ribena they tested. The company had promoted the product by claiming that blackcurrants had four times the vitamin C of oranges.

The girls got short shrift when they telephoned GlaxoSmithKline.

"They didn't even really answer our questions. They just said it's the blackcurrants that have it, then they hung up," Jenny said.

Well, that was very clever. Blackcurrants have it, but not Ribena. So, nobody is misleading the public. You can guess the “concentration” of blackcurrant in Ribena. Have you tried the Syrop de cassis from France? The flavour of blackcurrant just bursts in your mouth.

The question must be asked of the second largest pharmaceutical company in the world. If they did not know how to check for vitamin C level, what business did they have in producing drugs that are used by millions? If they knew about it then ……wow!

The 2007 New Zealand Commerce Commission Report did not mince their words:

"Health claims are big business in today’s market, and the Commission has targeted bogus health claims in recent years. It is very disappointing to see a major pharmaceutical and health products company like GlaxoSmithKline mislead the public in this way……….a massive breach of trust with the New Zealand public."

GSK pleaded guilty to 15 representative charges of breaching the Fair Trading Act by making misleading claims about the Vitamin C content of Ribena, was fined $227,500, and ordered to undertake a nationwide campaign of corrective advertising in newspapers to explain that some forms of Ribena contain no detectable level of vitamin C.

GSK were lucky that they did not get fined over Ribena in any other country including Australia. In Australia, they avoided the fine by undertaking to explain the true nutritional makeup of Ribena on its packaging, its website and in future advertising.

Knowledge is power and it is good to know that there are young Cockroach Catchers as far away as New Zealand.

The two girls must have the last words:

Every time I see the new Ribena ad, the one where they don't mention any vitamin C, I'm just like, "Oh, yeah".

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