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Are Prescription Drug Ads on TV Driving You Crazy?

Are prescription drug ads on TV making you mad as hell? If you are fed up with drug commercials, you are not alone. Even doctors have reached their limits.

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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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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