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Dawn of the "Cholesterol Skeptics": Big Pharma Conspiracy Theorists Get a Turn in the Spotlight

We've all spent time worrying about our cholesterol levels, but what if it was all... a conspiracy! What if the truth was that eating lots of fat doesn't clog your arteries and kill you, and that there's been a deliberate effort to ignore that evidence in order to secure the financial fortunes of Big Pharma's major anti-cholesterol drugs? The news would be worthy of a (rather dull) episode of the X-Files, the 1990s TV show in which a pair of outcast FBI agents investigate cases too implausible for the regular feds to waste their time on.

That, in a nutshell, is what might be behind the headline-grabbing attack on the increased use of cholesterol drugs such as AstraZeneca's (AZN) Crestor published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The article -- which said that a massive trial named "Jupiter" that showed Crestor prevented heart attacks and strokes was "flawed" and raised "troubling questions concerning the role of commercial sponsors" -- got coverage in the LA Times, Time, ABC and Bloomberg. The FDA approved Crestor for preventative use in people without high cholesterol as a result of the Jupiter trial. Statin drugs for high cholesterol are among the most widely used drugs in the country. Pfizer (PFE)'s Lipitor is the top-selling drug on the planet, with revenues of $13.2 billion annually.

Yesterday's attack was authored by two members of THINCS, The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics. According to CardioBrief:

Two of the authors of the recent vicious attack on JUPITER published in Archives of Internal Medicine are members of an obscure, cult-like group of cholesterol skeptics. The organization, The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics (THINCS), is resolutely opposed to the cholesterol hypothesis. Members of the group consistently seeks to denigrate the beneficial effects of statins and to highlight what they perceive as serious and widely pervasive side effects (including cancer) of the drugs. The first author of the Archives paper, Michel de Lorgeril, and one of the co-authors, Harumi Okuyama, are listed as THINCS members on the organization's website.
Cholesterol skeptics? Check out the THINCS web site. It says:
For decades, enormous human and financial resources have been wasted on the cholesterol campaign, more promising research areas have been neglected, producers and manufacturers of animal food all over the world have suffered economically, and millions of healthy people have been frightened and badgered into eating a tedious and flavorless diet or into taking potentially dangerous drugs for the rest of their lives. As the scientific evidence in support of the cholesterol campaign is non-existent, we consider it important to stop it as soon as possible.

... What we all oppose is that animal fat and high cholesterol play a role. The aim with this website is to inform our colleagues and the public that this idea is not supported by scientific evidence; in fact, for many years a huge number of scientific studies have directly contradicted it.

As a vegetarian myself, I would love it if "millions" had been gulled into not eating meat, but as another set of July 4 barbecues approaches I suspect that burgers, ribs, steaks and hotdogs will retain their spot atop the American food pyramid.

Certainly, there are reasons to raise questions about how widely statins are used, whether they should be used on children or people without high cholesterol, and whether their side effects are widely publicized enough (see related stories below). But while the THINCS site contains a lot of interesting material on alternative explanations for the diseases we currently attribute to cholesterol, it also contains a fair amount of drivel. This page contains links to this book on diet supplements (because unregulated flim-flam is better than peer-reviewed science, right?). It also links a video titled, "Pharma corruption of medical science by Beatrice Golomb," a rote hodge-podge of standard claims that drug company funding biases science. And it links to this Reuters story, housed on the arch-conservative site NewsMax, which describes Pfizer's funding of doctors -- it doesn't even mention the word "cholesterol."

As CardioBrief comments:

... the association of the authors with a group like THINCS raises some troublesome questions because, in fact, THINCS members don't just object to one trial (JUPITER), or just one drug (rosuvastatin [Crestor]), or just the use of statins for primary prevention. They raise objections about ALL cholesterol-lowering trials, ALL cholesterol-lowering drugs, and the use of statins in ALL populations. They constantly harp on the dangerous side effects of statins, and exploit any bit of evidence they can find to launch their attacks, always ignoring the considerable evidence that doesn't support their views.
The whole thing is extremely strange. The truth is out there.