Does anyone like prescription drug ads on TV? We've taken several informal, unscientific polls and discovered that no one we know seems to like commercials about erectile dysfunction, overactive bladder or prostate enlargement.
Most people we ask express annoyance at best and outrage at worst. Parents have complained that some ads give rise to uncomfortable questions from young children.
There are only two countries in the industrialized world that permit this sort of direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising of prescription drugs: The United States and New Zealand. The European Union expressly forbids this kind of promotion.
Congress recently contemplated restrictions on such drug ads. Legislators considered giving the FDA power to restrict advertising for drugs that have serious safety concerns.
They were encouraged to do so by a report issued last year by the prestigious Institute of Medicine. The scientists recommended that the FDA should require a special warning symbol for new medications during their first two years on the market and prohibit DTC promotion during that time.
Instead of beefing up oversight, though, Congress only gave the FDA the right to review ads before they are aired. The agency can make recommendations for changes, but has no authority to actually require ad agencies to redo commercials.
What happened on the way to the big vote? Pharmaceutical companies, advertising agencies and media lobbyists all objected to tougher regulations on drug ads. More than $5 billion was spent on prescription drug advertising in 2006.
Television broadcasters and magazine publishers have come to rely on this revenue. According to the Wall Street Journal, pharmaceuticals were the 10th biggest advertiser in 2006 and growing fast. Nobody wants to kill or even slow down the goose that is laying so many golden eggs.
The media lobby worked hard to convince Congressmen that drug ads provide valuable information for consumers. They also portrayed commercials on TV as a free speech issue. Under such lobbying pressure, legislators caved.
One reason the pharmaceutical industry keeps spending so much on advertising to consumers is that it works. People who see ads for Vytorin to lower cholesterol, Lunesta to counter insomnia and Boniva to build bones often ask their doctors for a prescription.
Even though doctors may not like having patients request specific drugs, they frequently go along with the program and write a prescription. Although consumers may complain about having to watch people in bathtubs waiting for their Cialis moment, for example, many viewers are obviously following instructions to ask their doctors for a prescription for a medicine they see on TV.
Consumers seemingly ignore the list of potentially serious side effects that are often read quickly while the onscreen picture shows someone having fun. Warnings about drug-induced complications such as severe heartburn, cataracts, glaucoma, osteoporosis, hemorrhage or even heart attack don't seem to faze viewers.
Next time you find yourself watching a commercial for a prescription medication, ask yourself whether the information is really helpful. If not, perhaps it is time to exercise your own first amendment right to free speech and tell your legislators what you think about DTC ads.