They're not just sugar pills. And new research suggests that their ingredients could be skewing drug trials.
Joe Kloc, Mother Jones
In the 1960s, a six-year trial of a potential heart-disease drug was conducted in 19 hospitals across Scotland. Researchers gave 350 subjects with heart problems a drug containing the agent clofibrate; 367 got a placebo. For the most part, clofibrate proved to be statistically better at prolonging the subjects' lives. But when it came to a subgroup of participants who had recently suffered a heart attack, clofibrate was only as good as the placebo. Normally, the mortality rate following a heart attack was four to nine percent per a year. But the placebo group's was less than three percent.
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It's possible that the placebo group was just an unusual sampling of heart-attack patients with an above-average survival rate. This was the conclusion that the researchers published in 1971. But, as it turns out, the study's placebo contained olive oil, which is now known to fight heart disease. It appears that this possibility never occurred to the researchers. However, since they published their placebo's ingredients, others were able to question and examine their conclusion. Yet more often than not, researchers don’t disclose what's in their placebos—making oversights like the Scottish researchers' nearly impossible to catch.