Public Health England expert quits role after backlash over drugs claim

One of the Government’s key advisers on the use of antidepressants has resigned from the role citing harassment after claims he made about coming off the drugs drew widespread derision from colleagues and users.

Professor David Baldwin was described as a “pharma-whore” and “a pharmaceutical rapist and a lying serial murderer worse than Hitler” following a letter he co-authored more than six months ago in which he said side effects of coming off antidepressants normally cleared up within two weeks.

The fallout has prompted Professor Baldwin to resign as a member of the expert reference group for Public Health England (PHE)’s review of prescription-drug dependence.

In his resignation letter, seen by the Press Association, Professor Baldwin said he had “committed” himself to “improving clinical outcomes in patients with depressive and anxiety disorders” for over 30 years.

He wrote: “As a matter of course, I repeatedly reflect on all the clinical and academic work I undertake – and in clear conscience state that I believe my work with biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies has contributed to reducing at least some of the burdens experienced by patients with psychiatric illness.

“My decision to stand down from membership of the ERG stems from unwillingness to tolerate the continuing coordinated stream of comments on my activities and views.

“This campaign has caused me significant distress and distracts from the important work of the PHE review.

“It also has a detrimental impact on my ability to deliver high quality patient care, which has always been my primary motivation.”

Professor Wendy Burn, who wrote the original letter to The Times newspaper in February alongside her colleague Professor Baldwin at the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP), said his resignation was “a great pity”.

She said: “He made it clear to me that he felt harassed into resigning over what he viewed as a campaign against him, both in terms of complaints and on social media.

“He felt that responding to this campaign had become a distraction from his work on the review and was having an impact on his main commitment to delivering patient care.

“It is disappointing that any resignation should take place for these reasons and it is critical that the review and this ongoing debate more generally can be conducted in an informed, professional and respectful manner.

“Given Professor Baldwin’s range of clinical, research and other relevant experience and expertise, he was in a position to make a valuable contribution to the review and it is a significant loss for Public Health England that he was unable to continue in these circumstances.”

Professor Baldwin’s letter caused upset due to repeated concerns from patients that the effects of withdrawal from antidepressants are downplayed.

Days after his letter, 30 psychiatric experts – including medical professionals, academics and patients – lodged a complaint with the RCP deriding the two professors over what they described as a “potentially dangerous and misleading” claim.

It followed an initial approach to the two professors to complain about their letter – something the concerned experts said was dismissed by the duo.

The subsequent letter of complaint to RCP bosses added: “It is our hope that the College will take our concerns seriously and take steps to remedy the situation in a way that will preclude the need to take the matter forward to other bodies.

“Our goal is to correct a potentially dangerous misleading public statement and to prevent similarly misleading statements in future by representatives of the RCPsych, not to punish individuals.

“We believe that statement (about withdrawal) is not evidence-based, is incorrect and has misled the public on an important matter of public safety, with potentially hazardous consequences for members of the public.”

One blogger added: “I didn’t say David Baldwin was evil, I said he was a Pharma-Whore.”

Another, who said she was “unemployable” for six years after coming off antidepressant Seroxat, said: “I would label him (Professor Baldwin) a pharmaceutical rapist and a lying serial murderer worse than Hitler!”

Rosanna O’Connor, director of drugs, alcohol, tobacco and justice at PHE, said the body “regrets any personal distress caused to Professor Baldwin as a result of this disagreement” over the withdrawal of antidepressants.

She said: “Professor Baldwin’s decision to resign as the RCP’s representative was a personal one and not at the request of PHE. We wanted to hear from a broad base of professional and academic figures

with relevant experience and expertise and a range of opinions. All members were required to declare any outside interests.

“Committee members have strongly held views but we don’t believe anyone has breached the terms of reference of the group.

“We were sorry that Professor Baldwin resigned as his particular experience was of value to the group. We are keen to ensure that there is balance within the group and whilst we are disappointed that Professor Baldwin has withdrawn, we do still have RCP’s representation on the group.”

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2018, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Ben Birchall / PA Wire.