Inside the Mystery Placebos

William Campbell Douglass II, M.D.

November 29, 2010

Why bother creating a good drug — all you really need to do is come up with a bad placebo.  Statins, for example, would look positively fantastic if you could somehow spike the placebo with strychnine.  Far-fetched? Maybe not — because the truth is, nobody knows what the heck is in most of the placebos used in drug trials.  Nobody, that is, except for the researchers and their Big Pharma backers.

In a new analysis, researchers looked at 176 studies published in four major medical journals between January 2008 and December 2009 to see what placebos were used. They didn’t get very far: Just 8.2 percent of all pill studies and 26.7 percent of all injection studies disclosed the contents of the placebo, according to the study in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Think that’s outrageous? That’s nothing — the real outrage here is that the feds have NO requirement at all that researchers disclose the contents of their placebos. None. And if you think researchers aren’t taking full advantage of that little loophole, well, there’s probably a job opening for you at the FDA.

But all you need to do is look at some of the placebos that we do have information on to realize there’s plenty of room for funny business. Take the Gardasil vaccine I’ve been warning you about. In one trial, the researchers spiked the placebo with aluminum, a metal that can cause the same types of nerve damage that have been linked to Gardasil. That’s a placebo “effect” straight out of hell.

In a study mentioned in the new analysis, a med for anorexic cancer patients went up against a “placebo” made of lactose. Of course, cancer patients are often lactose intolerant, and a lactose pill will certainly cause side effects. And if I know that, you can bet the researchers behind that study sure as heck did as well.

Think about that next time you read about a “placebo-controlled” trial — because in reality, there’s no control at all.


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