Why the the drug ads need to stop

Are you wondering if you have toenail fungus?

At its interim meeting in November, the American Medical Association, the most influential group representing the country’s physicians, voted to call for a ban on the direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising of prescription medications.


The AMA primarily cited the increased drug costs in calling for the ban, but you can bet that doctors aren’t very happy with patients bombarding them with questions about the medications they see advertised either. Every one of those smarmy ads says: “Ask your doctor if Hyperbolea is right for you,” so each visit entails the doctor explaining why it isn’t.

Ah, but the pharmaceutical industry spent upward of $4.5 billion advertising its prescription products last year, up more than 30 percent in annual spending over the previous two years. So even though I have never met anyone who loves the relentless drug ads flooding the television airwaves, it must be working. Some people apparently put more faith in the ads than their doctors.

If you just popped into the United States and watched television for an hour, you’d think the entire country suffers from diabetes, erectile dysfunction, COPD, depression, painful intercourse, BPH, afib, high cholesterol, blood clots, allergies – and, let’s be honest, hypochondria. The ads make you think, “Do I have toenail fungus?” even if you passed your latest physical with flying colors.

It all reminds me of the marvelous 1980 novel by my favorite writer, Calvin Trillin, called “Floater.” The main character is a reporter for a national news magazine who “floats” from beat to beat when the regular reporter is otherwise engaged; he spends an inordinate amount of time on the medical desk because the main beat reporter is out sick with the latest disease he covered.

There are many reasons why restricted prescription drugs should not be advertised direct-to-the-consumer. The first thing that comes to mind is that the regular consumer isn’t qualified to make medical judgments. Physicians already know about these drugs, and they are the only people qualified (and authorized) to dispense them, or recommend alternatives. The AMA, however, was smart in its banning vote to emphasize that DTC advertising unnecessarily inflates drug costs because, unfortunately, affordability is certainly something that regular consumers are all too qualified to understand, especially as it relates to health care and prescription medications.

Part of the surge in drug advertising is that many of these brand-name pharmaceuticals are coming off patent protection, and Big Pharm is doing all it can to protect its high profits against the introduction of often much-less-expensive generic drugs. Who would want to take the no-name drug over the wonders of the brand name when it comes to something as important as health?

But let’s just talk about propriety. I can’t be the only person who has found it profoundly uncomfortable to watch, over and over again, ads for Viagra or Premarin or Latuda with my children in attendance. Plus, I have severe questions about the people these ads apparently appeal to when they go through the litany of side effects, like risk of suicide, painful swallowing, seizures, fatal events (!?!), or impaired judgment. And why is everyone in the ads smiling? OK, I get smiling in Cialis ads, but I saw one where the women featured was beaming while the announcer said, “…can lead to coma or DEATH.” 

I can’t help think that if beer and liquor advertisers were required to list side effects, no one would ever buy Jim Beam if the fast-talker in the ad said, “Side effects may include impaired pick-up lines, incarceration and DEATH.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration eased restrictions on DTC advertising relatively recently, in 1997, and the floodgates of bad taste opened up. I’m no doctor, but I can’t think of any significant clinical reason to advertise prescription drugs directly to consumers, and I can think of many reasons why it is bad; e.g., self-diagnosis, waste of physician time, inflated drug costs.

I’m with the AMA on this one. Advertising prescription drugs on TV or anywhere Direct-To-Consumer amounts to malpractice. Besides, when the drugs advertised draw lawsuits for unintended consequences (re: Vioxx), it will only encourage more lawyer advertising. Sheesh!

Enough already.

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