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Are You Overdosing On TV Drug Ads?

If you watch the evening news on TV these days, you’ve seen more than your fill of prescription drug ads. There’s the “celebrate with Celebrex” commercial, not to mention ads for the competition, Vioxx.
Depressed? There’s a 30 second spot for Zoloft. Since it can cause insomnia, there’s an ad for Ambien, which is supposed to give you a good night’s sleep.
Is your cholesterol high? The commercials urge you to get your numbers down with Lipitor or Zocor.
Once upon a time such promotions would have been unthinkable. The FDA had strict rules keeping advertisements for prescription drugs off the airwaves.
The agency reasoned that physicians spent years in medical school so they could decipher complex pharmaceutical research and select the right drug for each patient. Translating all this information into a 30 second commercial seemed impossible.
But once the pharmaceutical industry convinced the FDA to permit advertising directly to the consumer, the floodgates opened. Today, almost $3 billion is spent convincing patients to pester their doctors for pills they saw on TV.
Originally, commercials were for relatively mild problems like hair loss or allergies. Today, you can watch advertisements for medicines like Procrit, prescribed to cancer patients, or Plavix, to prevent heart attacks and strokes.
One of the conditions of promoting prescription medications directly to the public has been that information on side effects be provided. This is supposed to allow people to consider risks as well as benefits and achieve a balanced perspective.
But the pharmaceutical manufacturers have figured out a way to diminish the impact of these negative messages. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, many of these commercials feature people having a wonderful time right at the moment that the voice-over recites the list of possible complications.
It’s hard to pay attention to the announcer’s cautions about side effects such as diarrhea, dizziness, kidney problems or sexual difficulties while the actors are laughing, dancing or hugging.
Even though the bad news about medications is effectively neutralized with this tactic, there is a move afoot to get rid of this information entirely. This would presumably allow drug companies to promote medicines for “overactive bladder” or “erectile dysfunction” without mentioning side effects at all.
Critics caution that 30 second commercials are biased and incomplete, boost the cost of expensive medicines and fuel demand for drugs that may not even be necessary.
Worse, they turn the doctor-patient relationship upside down. Physicians tell us that it can be very hard to convince patients that they don’t always need the drugs they see advertised on television.
Although the AMA has considered a ban on these ads, that isn’t likely. The trend is to treat prescription medicines like consumer products such as soap or shampoo. But drugs are more dangerous than dish detergent. An estimated 100,000 people die each year as a consequence of prescription errors, adverse reactions or interactions between medicines. Don’t become a statistic because of a tempting TV ad.

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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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