COMMENTARY

Why the 'Statin Witch Hunt'?

Frank J. Veith, MD

Disclosures

March 20, 2014

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I am Dr. Frank Veith, Professor of Surgery at New York University Medical Center and the Cleveland Clinic. Today I am going to talk about what I call the "statin witch hunt" and why, despite it, we should give more patients statin drugs.

The question of whether to give statins to more healthy patients is one of considerable interest to the public and considerable debate in both the medical community and the lay press. In November, the American College of Cardiology (ACC) and the American Heart Association (AHA) released their long-awaited new guidelines[1] on the treatment of blood cholesterol to reduce the risk for adult atherosclerosis. This guideline, among other recommendations, guided physicians to expand the number of patients being treated with statin drugs. The guideline was greeted with many objections in both the medical community and the lay press. Most notable was a November 14 New York Times[2] op-ed by 2 respected experts, Drs. John Abramson and Rita Redberg, titled "Don't Give More Patients Statins." Other New York Times articles about Drs. Paul Ridker and Nancy Cook,[3] and another by Gina Kolata,[4] expressed similar reservations about the ACC/AHA guideline recommendation to broaden statin administration. All three of these New York Times articles were part of what I call the "statin witch hunt" which has generated much confusion among the public.

The op-ed by Drs. Abramson and Redberg makes the case that the recent ACC/AHA cholesterol guideline is incorrect to advocate the expansion of statin usage to more patients because such expansion "will benefit the pharmaceutical industry more than anyone else." They state that the guideline's authors were not "free of conflict of interest." In addition, they claim that "18% or more" of statin recipients "experience side effects" and that the increase in statin administration will largely be in "healthy people" who do not benefit and who would be better served by an improved diet and lifestyle.

Although the latter is true for everyone, Drs. Abramson and Redberg convey the wrong message. Statins are the miracle drug of our era. They have proven repeatedly and dramatically to lower the disabling and common consequences of arteriosclerosis -- most prominently heart attacks, strokes, and deaths in patients at risk. Statins avoid these vascular catastrophes not only by lowering bad blood lipids but also by a number of other beneficial effects that stabilize arterial plaques. They have minimal side effects, most of which are benign. In several controlled studies, the patients who did not receive statins had an incidence of side effects equal to those who received them. Serious side effects are rare and manageable. Moreover, healthy patients are only healthy until they get sick. Many individuals over the age of 40 take a daily aspirin. Statins are far more effective than aspirin in preventing the heart attacks and strokes that often occur unexpectedly in previously "healthy people." Clearly it would be worthwhile for such healthy people to take a daily statin pill with few side effects, if it would lower their risk for such vascular catastrophes and premature death.

In contrast to what is implied in the Abramson-Redberg article, these drugs are an easy way for people to live longer and better, and statins cannot be replaced with a healthy lifestyle and diet -- although combining the latter with statins is a good thing.

Lastly, with respect to the comments about the pharmaceutical industry benefitting from statin prescriptions, and the guideline authors' conflicts of interest, both are less important than patient benefit, which has been demonstrated dramatically and consistently in many excellent and well-controlled statin trials. Moreover, most statins are now generic, so the cost for obtaining these miraculous drugs need not be prohibitive, and the guideline's authors are experts who are eminently qualified to write them.

The statin witch hunt is a bad thing, and more patients should be on statin medication. I am Dr. Frank Veith, and that is my opinion.

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