COMMENTS: It is Pharma Time

It was such a lackluster day for news that not a single story warranted coverage by a reporter on all three networks. Inside the Beltway the major headline was Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's plan to reform regulation of the financial industry: CBS led with that and it was a scantily covered Story of the Day. On the campaign trail, news was made by the Federal Election Commission that Hillary Rodham Clinton's fundraising has an $8.7m shortfall: NBC led with that. ABC led with an update on the Pennsylvania primary. Big Pharma made a big splash amid the news vacuum at the American College of Cardiology convention in Chicago.

ABC's John McKenzie publicized heart research sponsored by Novartis, the pharmaceutical firm. Its research into 11,000 patients with high blood pressure found that a combination of two medicines--a calcium channel blocker and an ACE inhibitor--helps prevent strokes and heart attacks. McKenzie did not tell us which Novartis brand benefits from this finding.

CBS' in-house physician Jon LaPook covered a study of diabetes patients by Actos, a medicine that boosts the metabolism's sensitivity to insulin. Actos was compared with Amaryl, a rival medication that boosts the levels of insulin instead. LaPook told us that Actos has fewer negative side effects on the heart. LaPook did not tell us which pharmaceutical firms manufacture the two brands.

On NBC, Robert Bazell followed up on a study that all three newscasts covered in January on Schering-Plough's cholesterol-lowering drug Zetia and the Vytorin brand that includes Zetia in its blend of medicines. Zetia not only fails to prevent heart attacks, it may actually increase the build-up of plaque in the arteries. Bazell did not advance the story, merely reporting on the formal release of the findings at the cardiologists' convention. Still, with $5bn in annual sales--and a lavish consumer advertising campaign of which the network newscasts themselves have been happy beneficiaries--repeating the negative news certainly does no harm.

Rounding out the day's heart focus, CBS' Thalia Assuras traveled to the Park Heights barbershop in Baltimore. The Barbershop, immortalized in the 2002 Hollywood movie, Assuras reminded us, is a social center for black men. She cited a study that found that 80% of African-American men get their hair cut on a monthly basis, "staying almost three hours." Thus the University of Maryland's preventive health effort focused on the barber. It launched Hair, Heart & Health a program that trains barbers to monitor their customers' blood pressure in order to identify those at high risk for treatment.


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