One sad lesson to be learned from Side Effects: when you're considering whether to take a new medication, don't assume anything. Don't assume the medical researchers didn't manipulate their findings. Or that the pharmaceutical company released all its data. Or that the Food and Drug Administration made sure the medicine is safe. Alison Bass, a former Boston Globe reporter who specializes in medical issues, delivers that tough truth through the tale of Paxil, a popular antidepressant widely prescribed for children and adolescents - before it became clear that Paxil and similar drugs increase suicidal thoughts among some pediatric patients. The FDA now requires warning labels on those medications, but that step came only after a struggle between "Big Pharma" and patient advocates.
Bass focuses on a precedent-setting legal case brought by the New York State Attorney General's Office against GlaxoSmithKline, accusing the company of hiding negative findings about Paxil. She humanizes the somewhat complex story through the experiences of a handful of dogged whistleblowers: a legally blind prosecutor who noticed the data in a key Paxil study didn't match its positive conclusion; a health care administrator who stumbled over what Bass says were research misdeeds at Brown University; and a psychiatrist who first reported in 1990 that some patients became suicidal after they were prescribed Prozac.
The whistleblowers' persistence has paid off to some extent. The FDA has become somewhat more vigilant, and medical journals are more careful about the research they publish. But Bass shows that ethically dubious financial ties between pharmaceutical companies and the medical research community continue unabated. Her prime example is a senior psychiatrist at Brown implicated in questionable practices in the Paxil case and others. He refused to speak to Bass, and remains in good standing at Brown.
Anne Bartlett is a journalist in Washington, D.C.