The recent news about the harmful effects of hormone replacement was played in the media as a health story, but it is much more than that. In fact, it may be the hot-flashiest corporate scandal to date: Let’s call it Estron.
If other corporate scandals have been about fudging figures, this one is about fudging science–something that seems to have been surprisingly easy to do. And such is the corporate culture that we have apparently preferred to believe the drug companies rather than the women’s health advocates who have been lobbying for decades simply to get the scientific evidence to back the companies’ claims. The director of the North American Menopause Society (NAMS), Dr. Wulf Utian, called the bad news about hormones a bombshell, but it really isn’t. Information has been slowly accumulating about hormone replacement therapy’s risks, even as Wyeth and other manufacturers have been pushing their product as an elixir for a widening group of symptoms. In recent years, this potentially carcinogenic drug has been marketed with the nonchalance of a vitamin pill: HRT advertising suggests that almost no woman over 50 couldn’t benefit from it somehow.
Estron is the latest in a long line of scandals pitting women’s health against the interests of Big Pharma–scandals like the sale of faulty Dalkon Shield contraceptives, which caused infertility, and medications like DES, which caused severe illnesses in users and their children. What all these cases have in common is that–like the manufacturers of menopausal hormones–the drug companies, in their rush for profits, insufficiently tested their wares before selling them to millions. What these scandals suggest is that somewhere in the swampy landscape of medical research funding, unhealthy relationships incubate between medical practitioners and the drug-company reps who manage to dazzle them with quasi science and quasi truths. The industry spends around $15 billion a year to promote its products–more than it spends to develop them. Clearly, even those doctors who resisted the luxury-cruise-lectures approach to sales found themselves suckered in.
The manipulation of HRT’s scientific credentials began back in the mid-1960s, when Wyeth paid gynecologist Dr. Robert Wilson to extol its new wonder drug, estrogen replacement. In an evocatively named book, Feminine Forever, Wilson declared that by replacing the estrogen lost at menopause, women would remain attractive and easier to live with. Over the decades since, Wyeth and other hormone manufacturers have revised dosages and combinations to fit new medical revelations and poured billions into sophisticated propaganda to get their message out. The message is that menopause is not a natural life stage but a disease–estrogen deficiency–and it will make you old. HRT is the cure, and it will keep you young.