Blue and white pills

HRT ads misled women about the benefits, risks of HRT

Connie Barton bought into the message. It seemed to be everywhere – television, magazines, even her doctor was telling her that those nasty symptoms of menopause could be squashed by just taking a once-daily pill. Not only did the miraculous hormone replacement therapy (HRT) help with hot flashes, vaginal dryness and mood swings, it also helped counter serious health problems associated with estrogen loss – osteoporosis, heart disease, colon cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, tooth loss and blindness. It seemed almost too good to be true.

Drug makers like Wyeth published articles in medical journals and hired respectable figures like Lauren Hutton to act as spokeswomen in their ads. “There’s nothing more important than protecting your health,” Hutton said in one commercial. “Believe me, the time to protect your future is now.”

Five years after starting hormone therapy, Barton learned the hard way that HRT was not protecting her future. In fact, it was hurting it. What Wyeth failed to tell doctors and consumers was that evidence was beginning to mount against HRT, information the drug company kept hidden in an effort to protect its billion-dollar empire.

But in 2002, in the midst of the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI), a massive study on the causes of mortality and morbidity in menopausal and post-menopausal women, researchers noticed a shocking trend. Data showed that women who took HRT were at much greater risk of developing breast cancer. The hormones also increased a woman’s risk of other health conditions including heart attack, stroke, blood clots and dementia. The study into hormone therapy was immediately stopped.

But it was too late for thousands of women like Barton, who were now fighting life-threatening illnesses. Barton took Wyeth to court and in October was awarded $75 million in punitive damages and $3.75 million on compensatory damages.

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