Over the next few weeks, we are proud to feature excerpts from the article “Side-FX: The Drug Industry’s Influence on Health Care” by Keith Wassung. These articles focus on the impact prescription drug companies have on American health care and our society as a whole.  Last week’s article introduced the drug industry’s influence on health care.  This week’s focuses on just how serious the drug industry’s influence reaches.

Part 2: Just How Serious is the Drug Industry’s Influence on Health Care?

Adverse reactions to prescription drugs are a major cause of death in the U.S. An estimated 106,000 hospital patients die each year from adverse reactions, making adverse drug reactions the fourth most frequent cause of death. 1

A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine stated that drug-related morbidity and mortality costs are 136 billion dollars a year-more than the cost of cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the United States. 2

According to the National Council on Patient Information and Education, over 50 percent of all prescriptions are used incorrectly.

Misuse or noncompliance is a major health problem in the United States, resulting in 218,000 deaths and the hospitalization of 1 million individuals annually. The total cost to the economy is approximately $177 billion annually. 3

Package of Prozac

A 1994 study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute and the Journal of the Federation of Experimental Biology warned that antihistamines and anti-depressant drugs (including Prozac) contain chemicals known to accelerate tumor growth. While these drugs do not directly cause cancer, they can speed its growth. 4

Not all adverse reactions to new drugs can be anticipated or avoided under the present system, according to medical experts. “It is simply not possible to identify all the adverse effects of drugs before they are marketed,” according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine. In fact, “Overall, 51% of approved drugs have serious side effects not detected prior to approval. 5

Side effects from new drugs cannot be anticipated for 2 main reasons:

Screenshot from The New England Journal of Medicine special article on patient safety entitled Adverse Drug Events


(1)Individuals vary greatly in their reactions to chemical substances.

(2)Drugs are tested where side effects may not appear in such a small group but may become painfully obvious when millions of people start taking the drug.



Americans consume over 15 tons of aspirin a day, 34 billion aspirin tablets per year. NSAIDS, which include drugs like aspirin, ibuprofen and acetaminophen, are thought to be harmless drugs, but in an average year they will:


Be responsible for over 200,000 cases of gastrointestinal bleeding and 20,000 deaths.6

Be the leading cause of kidney disease. 7

Cause stomach ulcers, toxic headaches, and Reye’s syndrome in children. 8


The elderly are especially likely to be medicated. Their average prescription rate is 13 per patient per year. Elderly Americans spend over three billion dollars a year on prescription medications. Adverse drug reactions especially trouble the elderly because they are more likely to have multiple underlying health problems and also tend to have a weakened liver and kidneys, which break down and eliminate medications.

Elderly gentleman and woman passed out next to pills and pill vials

Public Citizen Health Research Group reports the following prescription drug induced conditions per year for people over the age of 60.

spilled pills

    • A million adverse reactions to prescription drugs.
    • 243,000 hospitalized due to prescription drugs.
    • 163,000 mentally impaired due to prescribed drugs.
    • 2 million addicted to prescription drugs.9





1. Lazarou J; Pomeranz BH; Corey PN. Incidence of adverse drug reactions in hospitalized patients:a meta-analysis of prospective studies. JAMA, 1998 Apr 15, 279(15):1200 5.

2. Johnson, J. Bootman, J. Drug-related morbidity and mortality. A cost-of-illness model. Archives ofInternal Medicine 1995 Oct 9;155 (18):1949-56.

3. Colvin R. “Prescription Drug Addiction” NursingCEU.com, 2009

4. Francis, R. “Never be sick again” Health Communications, Deerfield Beach, FL, 2002

5. Alastair J.J. Wood “Making Medicines Safer — TheNeed for an Independent Drug SafetyBoard,” New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 339, No. 25 (December 17, 1998), pgs. 1851-1854.

6. Bystrianyk, R. Health Sentinel, Oct. 30, 2002

7. Klhar, A. “Chronic renal failure” Merck Medicus, May 2009

8. Wassung, K. Aspirin: Helpful or Hazardous, Riverhorse Publishing, 2003

9. Public Citizen Health Research Group, Sidney Wolfe, Best Pills, Worse Pills.