an angry man screamin

Do you watch television? If so, you have almost inevitably seen commercials for medications we hope you will never need. If you are like a lot of our visitors you are sick and tired of prescription drug ads.

2017 Prescription Drug Ads:

Even if you only watch TV occasionally you will likely see commercials for drugs like:

  • Cialis for erectile dysfunction and BPH (benign prostate hypertrophy)
  • Otezla for plaque psoriasis
  • Xeljanz XR for rheumatoid arthritis
  • Eliquis for atrial fibrillation (Afib) and stroke prevention
  • Namzaric for Alzheimer’s disease
  • Trulicity for diabetes
  • Humira for rheumatoid arthritis

How Times Have Changed:

Once upon a time, the only drugs advertised on television were nonprescription products anyone could buy off the shelf at the drugstore or convenience mart. Alka-Seltzer, Pepto-Bismol and Anacin were familiar brands. Few people objected to these commercials. You did not have to ask your doctor for an Alka-Seltzer prescription to treat your upset stomach and headache.

Now, however, powerful prescription medicines for serious or even life-threatening diseases are routinely advertised on the evening news. People are encouraged to “ask your doctor” if drug X is right for you.

If it seems as if you are seeing more prescription drug ads on TV these days, you are not mistaken. According to Kaiser Health News, the pharmaceutical industry has substantially boosted its spending on direct to consumer advertising in the last five years. Last year it was estimated at over $6 billion.

The Cost of Advertised Drugs:

Many of the medications that are being promoted are extremely expensive. Opdivo (nivolumab) is an immunotherapy for certain types of cancer. It is being advertised as “a chance to live longer,” though the ad doesn’t specify exactly how much longer. Opdivo therapy for cancer can cost as much as $150,000.

By comparison, advertised drugs like Cialis seem like a bargain at only $400 a month. Keep in mind that insurance companies rarely pay for “lifestyle” drugs to improve a man’s erections.

Humira for rheumatoid arthritis (or other autoimmune conditions) could cost $4,500 to $5,500 a month for a carton of 2 preloaded injection pens.

Xeljanz XR advertises that it is the “unjection” for rheumatoid arthritis. The cost of 30 pills (with a free coupon) can come close to $4,000 a month.

Slick Television Commercials:

Prescription drug ads are very sophisticated video productions. The music and the images are designed to create a sense of enthusiasm for the medication. It should come as no surprise to learn that drug companies don’t want to spend a ton of money frightening people out of taking their expensive medicines. To get around FDA regulations about disclosing risks as well as benefits, the ad agencies have come up with some surprisingly effective strategies.

Voiceover actors are hired who have learned how to deliver really bad news in a calm and reassuring way. When they get to the scary stuff, there is often a subtle change in style. The announcer tends to speed up while reading a long list of side effects. The video that accompanies some of the nastiest adverse reactions (including death) is often designed to draw attention to beautiful vistas, interesting activities, pets or people smiling.

Lyrica for Diabetic Nerve Pain:

Lyrica (pregabalin) has been advertised for treating diabetic foot pain. In one commercial a retired Baltimore policeman describes the condition as:

“you have a numbness but yet you have the pain like thousands of needles sticking in your foot.”

He reports success taking Lyrica for the pain and viewers watch him tending to his beautiful backyard garden. Meanwhile, the voice-over reviews the problems:

“Lyrica is not for everyone. It may cause serious allergic reactions or suicidal thoughts or actions. Tell your doctor right away if you have these: new or worsening depression or unusual changes in mood or behavior, or swelling, trouble breathing, rash, hives, blisters, changes in eye sight including blurry vision, muscle pain with fever, tired feeling or skin sores from diabetes. Common side effects are dizziness, sleepiness, weight gain, and swelling of hands, legs and feet. Don’t drink alcohol while taking Lyrica. Don’t drive or use machinery until you know how Lyrica affects you.”

In another Lyrica commercial a woman hair stylist complains that:

“Before I had this shooting, burning, pins and needles of diabetic nerve nerve pain, these feet liked to style my dog as a kid, loved motherhood rain or shine and were pumps to open my own salon. But I couldn’t bear my diabetic nerve pain any longer.”

Her doctor prescribed Lyrica. While the announcer describes a litany of serious side effects, the smiles show up.

Want to see what we are talking about? Here is a link:

Abilify and Depression:

Other prescription drug ads list even more devastating complications. A commercial for Abilify to treat depression warns:

“Elderly dementia patients taking Abilify have an increased risk of death or stroke.

“Call your doctor if you have high fever, stiff muscles and confusion to address a possible life-threatening condition or if you have uncontrollable muscle movements, as these can become permanent. High blood sugar has been reported with Abilify and medicines like it and in extreme cases can lead to coma or death…”

Watch an Abilify TV commercial at this link:

How to Watch Drug Commercials on TV:

The next time a commercial for a prescription drug comes on TV, close your eyes and listen carefully. You may discover the list of side effects has a greater impact when you are not watching people having fun.

Mad as Hell? Not Going To Take It Any More? 

If you think Congress will ban these prescription drug ads anytime soon, consider that the pharmaceutical industry is one of the biggest lobbying groups in this country. A lot of money funds Congressional campaigns. Here is a link to an article we wrote about “soaring lobbying budgets” from drug companies.

Let’s not forget that the media (television and magazines in particular) are reaping the rewards of pricey prescription drug ads. The cost of a 30 second commercial during prime time television is hundreds of thousands of dollars. During the Super Bowl a 30 second commercial can top $5 million. If a Senator or Congressman tried to turn off the spigot on prescription drug ad dollars, we suspect there would be a hue and cry from the media.

Doctors are Mad Too:

We have asked physicians about prescription drug ads and they seem as annoyed as consumers. After all, they have to deal with the consequences of commercials that exhort people to “ask your doctor” if drug Z is right for you. A couple of years ago the AMA called for an end to direct-to-consumer prescription drug ads. Here is an article we wrote on why “Top Doctors Prescribe a Ban on Drug Ads.”

What People Have to Say:

We have heard from a lot of visitors to this website over the last several years. Here are just a few comments on the topic of prescription drug ads:

Richard in Galloway, NJ, is “annoyed”:

“I thought it was just me that was annoyed by these drug advertisements. They focus on the dangerous side effects with all the happy smiling faces enjoying their days activities. Bunk!

“When I hear these, I immediately think of what side effect I might have if I were taking the drug rather than the potential benefit they may have. Regardless, I don’t ask my Doctor. I let him inform me. What do I know other than what I might hear on the TV about adverse effect of something they are trying to sell. I wish they (the drug adverts) would just go away and let the doctors and pharmacists do their jobs.”

Cindy in Seattle, WA, is nauseated:

“I could not agree more that these ads are self-serving and drive up costs for everyone. The images of smiling, healthy people having fun while a soundtrack warns of horrible side effects, even death, are weird to the point of nauseating.

“It’s almost like, by reeling off these side effects so casually, they are ‘disarming’ them and minimizing one’s concern re: any one of them. Actually just an hour ago I signed a petition to help get these ads off the air. Of course it is incumbent on every consumer to do due diligence when it comes to Rx meds.”

Susan in New Jersey says “enough is enough!”

“I have never believed that Pharmaceutical Companies should be allowed to advertise on TV. Many people find it upsetting and negative. The cost to advertise should be put into research. Pharma has representatives to keep the doctors informed. Enough is enough.”

Barbara in St. Maries, ID, is infuriated:

“Have you tried to watch the news. The drugs ads are sickening, infuriating and disgusting. All this advertising does is raise the price of drugs for those who really need them. The average citizen has no business determining what drugs are appropriate for their maladies.

“I have written to every broadcast network. I have discontinued subscriptions to magazines for their 3 page drug ads. All to no avail. This is the most welcome news [that doctors are fed up too] I have heard in years. Wakeup call……finally.”

Jeff in Fort Lauderdale, FL:

“This should have ended a LONG time ago. It should equate to lower drug prices. Advertising direct to consumer for these drugs is insane. People don’t research these things before they ask the doctor for them. It has to drive the doctors nuts.”

A.M. is concerned about her kids:

“I find many of these commercials to be totally inappropriate at times. My kids and I are watching TV when suddenly we get a commercial for Cialis for erectile dysfunction. I am also fed up with all these initials! DVT… RLS?”

Grace is outraged over the high price of drugs:

“I see prescription drug ads as totally wasteful and useless. No matter how good the commercial, you cannot go out and purchase a prescription drug. That is as it should be. So why the advertising?

“Physicians are kept abreast of new prescription drugs as they come out. They alone can prescribe them. I also resent and am outraged by the money spent on these commercials at a time when prescription drugs are sold at outrageous prices, Many who need them cannot afford them. The money spent on advertising should be spent on keeping the drug prices down.”

What is your opinion about prescription drug ads on television? We welcome thoughts about the pros and cons of such commercials. Add your perspective in the comment section below.

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  1. Gwen

    This problem will never go away. These companies CONTROL the major networks. It will only get worse. The only solution is to mute them, and focus on other activities while watching tv. I don’t listen to or watch ANY commercial. We can plead all day long to our representatives and complain to the networks. It will never change things. It also seems like it’s even gotten worse in the last 6 months. The frequency of these ads has dramatically escalated. It’s become our new norm. There is no fix.

  2. Ellen

    For years I have been enraged by the amount of money the pharmaceutical companies spend on the production and placement of elaborate advertising campaigns. It seems to me that these funds would be better spent if they were redirected toward our health care system. It is the responsibility of our doctors, not Big Pharma, to diagnose and treat patients. They, not the pharmaceutical companies, should be the ones recommending prescription medications. With all the talk about funding health care in this country it seems to me that banning prescription drug advertising and requiring pharmaceutical companies to put even a portion of that money into a national health care system would be beneficial to all.

  3. June

    I have had it. I simply mute the TV when these commercials come on!

  4. Mary

    Yes, I too am just plain tired of the ads on TV talking about all of the brand new drugs. After hearing about all of the side affects that goes with the new drugs, what is the use of taking the drugs?

  5. Annette

    I usually just hit the mute button on my remote during all advertisements, which includes all the highly manipulative drug ads. Just hearing about all those diseases can make one sick!

    I also try to use advertising time to get up off my duff and do a few quick chores nearby, so that I can see when whatever program I’m watching is back on. This way, I feel more in control of what I allow into my personal living space.

    I figure, it’s also good for my health to move around during the ads rather than just sitting nonstop.

  6. Carlene
    Round Rock, TX

    Why can’t you start a national petition we could all sign and get the ball rolling to get congress to give us some relief. If we can get a national campaign together, we could voice our displeasure and anger in a way that would get some action and remove these ads from our TVs, our homes, and everyday lives.

  7. Karen

    Many of the comments I see urge people to write or email their representatives to request legislation be proposed to limit or even prohibit direct to consumer advertising of prescription drugs. But what is the point when we have a US Supreme Court so inclined to protect the “free speech ” corporations? They will sue and simply have the law declared unconstitutional.

    There still are many good and dedicated people who work in our health care industry. People who choose this career because they care about other people. But that said there are also many factors that drive up the cost of receiving care in this country, and greed is at the heart of every one of them. For those interested in delving deeper I found Elizabeth Rosenthal’s book An American Sickness eye opening to say the least.

  8. Phyllis D N

    I can hardly watch the major TV stations because of the UNBELIEVABLE number of drug ads!!!!!!!

  9. Ann

    Last year when my GP retired I asked her how many patients had asked her for a specific medication since Rx drugs had been allowed to be advertised. Her response was none, except for a couple of men who asked for Viagra.

    When are all the companies who spend enormous amounts of money on advertising going to realize it is a scam? I would never ask my doctor for a specific drug. I expect her to prescribe the best medication for my situation.

    Personally, I mute all adds when I watch TV and rarely buy anything advertised.

  10. Anne Marie

    These ads are terrible. Doctors, not consumers, should be making these decisions. All these ads do is add to the cost of already very expensive medications we have here in the US. I would really like to see our government get these commercials off the air.These days, rather than acting responsibly in the best interest of its citizens, our government caves to demands by well-funded lobbying groups. Where’s the integrity that our nation was founded on?

  11. Wendy
    Churchville, VA

    Advertising prescription drugs should never have been legalized. Since it has I will not take the drugs advertised nor will I ask my doctors if I should. I mute or skip when possible and do not allow grandsons to watch without commenting that they should never take ANY drug without their mother’s and doctor’s approval.

  12. Chris

    MUTE, MUTE, MUTE!!!!!!

    VA - Virginia

    I also hate these commercials. What kind of meds you take should be between you and your doctor. What do you know about drugs to help you live a few more miserable days or weeks.

    That is why you have a MD. They should take that ad money and use it to lower the price of drugs instead of consistently raising the prices. I wish there was something we could do about it. I just mute all of them.

  14. Deanne

    I agree with everything voiced in the comments. I know there is not one iota of hope for the USA, in a myriad of areas, until the public stands up to big Pharma, etc. Did you know that the USA and New Zealand are the only two countries that allow ads for pharmaceuticals?

    Big pharma and insurance companies have dictated that I must die because, as a retired single woman, I cannot possibly afford dental or vision care. With all my being, I wish I could move to Costa Rico, who has a much higher medical rating that the USA, as a much better cost.

  15. Richard
    New Jersey

    Today’s drug ads remind me of the Pall Mall cigarette ads I heard on the radio every morning for several years before I went off to elementary or junior high school. Later, when I decided I wanted to smoke at age 18 my favorite brand was (wait for it) Pall Mall. Although I have two doctors who advise “not to look for trouble” by having extra blood work that might disclose a need for one of these advertised drugs, if there were not people looking for trouble and finding it, these ads would stop.

  16. Wanda D

    These ads should be banned from television Period!!!! Use that money to lower the cost for those who need the medicines!

  17. Jule K
    South Carolina

    As People’s Pharmacy pointed out, adverse reactions to drugs are a leading cause of deaths:

    That doesn’t count severe reactions that cause long-term disability and ill health.

    It looks like FDA is considering reducing the list of possible adverse reactions in direct-to-consumer print advertising: Clearly, informed consent is not on FDA’s agenda if the agency makes it easier for “sponsors.”

    In addition to health effects, I am concerned about the vast amount of advertising in media that depends upon the pharmaceutical industry. No publication or news show will seriously investigate adverse drug effects when their funding comes from drug companies.

    Both journalists and FDA are compromised by their dependence on Pharma.

  18. Gaile C

    This is a marketing ploy to sell expensive new drugs. I record everything I watch and fast forward through the commercials. I refuse to watch drug commercials. It is an unfair advantage the drug companies have over vulnerable people who believe everything they see or read and I think the ads are highly suggestive to anyone’s subconscious mind who is watching.

    Not only do I refuse to watch the ads, I refuse prescriptions for any new meds on the market and ask for an older medication; in my experience, they have worked better anyway. I think pharmaceutical companies are rushing new stuff on the market just to up their profit and they are not necessarily better. (I am not in the medical field.)

  19. Shirley
    Smithfield, VA

    I thought I was the only one that is being driving to the edge by every other commercial being for some drug!!!!

    What can be done about it? Count me in for help on getting them off the air!!!!

  20. Jean

    I, too, am fed up with the commercials and for self preservation, I mute the sound and only watch the happy smiling people which is a direct antidote to the local news programs which glorify all the terrible things going on in the world. I am 80 years old and do remember the earlier commercials which were much more palatable.

  21. Berryman

    I believe we all need to think about the problem before trying a solution. All the drug pushers, this includes the pharmaceutical giants down to the street vendors, are pushing relief from physical or psychological pain. They are offering a bypass to ease the symptoms of the real problem.

    Let’s get to the source of the pain to fix the problem. Addressing physical pain is usually simple. For example, a knee injury. Your body is conveying a signal to your brain that this problem needs attention. Taking pain relievers can only postpone or lengthen the bodies ability to correct the problem.

    Allow the body to correct the issue; otherwise is will be back worse than before. Or take some pain relief and start down that slippery path of overmedication.

  22. Diane

    Why does the government, yet again, think it can interject itself into my medical care, by catering to the lobbyists? I worked as an RN for nearly 50 years. There was a time when office closets were overflowing with drug samples, baby formula, creams, ointments, etc. These products, now, are more judiciously doled out. They have to be signed for, and there is a cap on how much of a certain drug can be sampled out to each doctor’s office.

    However, that does not stop the pharmaceutical companies from providing generous lunches for the office staff and trips and golf excursions for the doctors. Many patients simply cannot afford their medications. The new ones that are being advertised on TV and in magazines are very, very expensive and have not stood the test of time to see if the benefits outweigh the side effects.

    My husband worked at a Federal Courthouse for 18 years, and he was always saddened by the senior citizens that had to come in and file for bankruptcy because they could not afford their medical care, specifically, their medications. I want my PCP to use the safest and most effective prescription that will work for me.

    I can say, from personal experience, that most doctors cringe when a patient comes in and asks for “Drug X” they saw advertised on TV. Keep the lobbyists out of this and let our doctors and pharmacists help us with the medications they know will treat us to our benefit.

  23. Judith

    To me, this trend away from convention mirrors the current political environment in which conventions like diplomacy, respecting our institutions, upholding values of fairness and respect and using good manners/sensitivity in dealing with others are all under attack. The vulgarity of our president is an undoing of old expectations of decency.

    The drug advertisements on TV also undo our expectation that pharma doesn’t appeal directly to desperately sick patients to line its pockets with profits derived from their misery. This practice is equivalent to Trump using Twitter to communicate his raw impulses rather than the well thought out speeches of former times, appealing to the public with logic and never insulting those who disagree.

    Pharma has a powerful lobby that allows access to the public in a way that is grossly inappropriate and greed-motivated. It’s up to the public and the medical profession to stand up and challenge this departure from norms that served us well in the past.

  24. Jampot

    I’m worried any time US regulations are inconsistent with the rest of the developed world and this is a great example. Only one other country allows direct to the consumer prescription drug advertising, so what is so different about the US that justifies that?! I’m sure the expense of advertising in the US contributes significantly to the cost of prescription drugs.

  25. Eva
    Atlanta, GA

    I agree whole-heartedly..WHAT can we do to stop it??E in Atlanta, GA

  26. BLAIR

    Where can we write or email to try to lessen the drug ads on television?

    Also, I have been trying to get in touch with you for a long time – my question, I have chronic tinnitus, why do I not see you writing about this subject?

    • Terry Graedon

      FDA says only Congress can change the rules on direct-to-consumer advertising. Consequently, the people to write are those who represent you in Washington.

  27. Naomi
    Florida (south-east)

    Everyone with any sense agrees Big Pharma (or Small) should not be allowed to advertise on T.V. or in Magazines. How about not at all? Maybe we need to start one of those petitions that are signed on a computer? Usually they want a donation. But, they really circulate. What an improvement in everybody’s mental health if we could just win that one. Unless a politician gains from those ads, he/she should be willing to stand with us. Maybe someone reading this knows how to do this. Do you?

  28. Carolyn

    Ditto to everything that has been said. And I, too, want to know how can we stop this torrent of repugnant, unnecessary advertising? What feckless representatives we have in Congress. Why won’t they stand up to the pharma lobby? As always, it’s about money.

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