Health Minister Tony Abbott has received some welcome support this week for the sceptical approach to putting new drugs on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme list which is necessary to limit the escalating cost to the budget.

A study funded by the British government and published in the Archives of General Psychiatry has found that new treatments for schizophrenia perform no better, and perhaps worse, than older drugs although they cost up to 10 times more.

The findings are bound to cause a problem or two for the drugs industry with Columbia University psychiatrist Jeffrey Lieberman commenting in the Archives that the claims of superiority for the newer drugs were greatly exaggerated.

“This may have been encouraged by an overly expectant community of clinicians and patients eager to believe in the power of new medications,” he wrote. “At the same time, the aggressive marketing of these drugs may have contributed to this enhanced perception of their effectiveness in the absence of empirical information.”

Mr Lieberman conducted a U.S. government study last year that found that one of the older drugs did as well as newer ones. The Washington Post reported that, at the time, many American psychiatrists warned against concluding that all the older drugs were as good.

Now it seems there can be no doubt. The perception that more expensive second generation anti-psychotics are more effective, with fewer adverse effects, and preferable to patients than the drugs they replaced is wrong.

Mr Abbott would do well to start looking again at the question of the advertising and promotional activities of the drug industry.

Peter Fray

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