Who Needs a Brochure When We Have the New York Times?

In an article about two new obesity drugs, the paper omits a crucial detail about one of its sources.

About one-third of the way into her piece in the business section of Tuesday’s New York Times, Stephanie Saul, it seems, ran out of skepticism.

And things were looking so promising for a while, there.

Saul, writing about two new obesity drugs coming up for FDA approval, Acomplia and Alli, reported that “some financial analysts see Acomplia as the most promising new drug of the year, and they predict multibillion-dollar sales eventually for its maker, the French company Sanofi-Aventis.” But Saul wasn’t just going to take “financial analysts’” word for it, and added the following caveat several sentences later: “But the history of Xenical, which was introduced by Roche in the United States seven years ago to rosy Wall Street forecasts that never fully materialized, may be a cautionary tale for Sanofi and its Acomplia cheerleaders.” Way to go, Saul! Don’t get sucked in by those “cheerleaders.”

Unfortunately, as a CJR Daily reader pointed out, further along in Saul’s piece another cheerleader goes unchecked.

In the sixth paragraph Saul reports that “advocates for the obese and overweight … hope that the over-the-counter availability of Alli and the approval of Acomplia will provide new options …” The only “advocate” heralding these “new options” in Saul’s piece is one Morgan Downey, whom Saul identifies simply as “executive director of the American Obesity Association, a patients’ advocacy group in Washington.”

A quick click over to the American Obesity Association (AOA) Web site reveals that among its “corporate sponsors” are — you guessed it — Aventis SA (now Sanofi-Aventis) and GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical companies behind Acomplia and Alli, respectively. This easily obtained and highly relevant information did not make it into Saul’s story.

In an industry where there is no shortage of shills willing to sing the praises of the next magic bullet, readers rely on reporters to locate and flag any agendas, affiliations, or conflicts of interest that might color an “advocate’s” comments. In this case, Saul proved entirely unreliable. (As for Downey, we are certain that GlaxoSmithKline will be thankful for his bullish comments on Alli. “I think our point is going to be it’s had this track record for some time. There’s been no major safety problems or abuse of it. Converting it to [over-the-counter] is a different market and it’s going to bring a product that’s more affordable to more people.”)

And there’s more. In the paragraph where we first meet Downey, Saul reports that “advocates for the obese and overweight … suggest that [Alli and Acomplia] might even be used together by patients who want help losing weight.” “Advocates” suggesting that two separate and distinct diet drugs be taken together? To quote our tipster, this seems like “a surprisingly incautious recommendation (in the wake of the phen/fen debacle)…regarding two drugs still being scrutinized for safety individually.” And, we’d add, equally “incautious” of the reporter to include it.

Cue the following enthusiastic quote from Downey: “I think if we could get obesity treatments to a situation like cholesterol where there are several different products, where one or two in combination might be successful, at least that would arm physicians with more than they have now.” Surely Morgan Downey must be a medical doctor as well as an “advocate,” given his innovative ideas on how patients might use diet drugs in combination?

Close. He was a lawyer and a lobbyist prior to joining AOA, according to his bio on the organization’s Web site.

Too bad the Times let him lobby unsuspecting readers.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.