The sleeping giant has awakened. The American Medical Association (AMA) is the largest organization of physicians in the U.S. At its interim meeting in November, the AMA called for a ban on direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising of prescription drugs.
The doctors are concerned about:
“the negative impact of commercially-driven promotions, and the role that marketing costs play in fueling escalating drug prices…Direct-to-consumer advertising also inflates demand for new and more expensive drugs, even when these drugs may not be appropriate.”
Prescription Drug Commercials on TV:
If you watch any television at all you have almost certainly seen a commercial that urges you to ask your doctor about drugs such as:
- Belsomra [for insomnia]
- Breo [for asthma or COPD]
- Celebrex [for arthritis]
- Cialis [for erectile dysfunction or ED]
- Crestor [for cholesterol control]
- Humira [for psoriatic arthritis]
- Invokana [for type 2 diabetes]
- Januvia [for type 2 diabetes]
- Jublia [for nail fungus]
- Kerydin [for toenail fungus]
- Lyrica [for diabetic nerve pain]
- Namenda XR [for Alzheimer’s]
- Neulasta [for immune function after cancer treatment]
- Opdivo [for squamous non-small cell lung cancer]
- Otezla [for plaque psoriasis]
- Viagra [for ED]
Informal polls that we have taken show that most people find these ads aggravating at best and horrific at worst. Nonetheless, it is clear that this type of marketing is working.
Last year the pharmaceutical industry spent more than $4.5 billion on consumer ads. That is up substantially from the prior year. The industry does not spend money on marketing unless it produces results.
Why Doctors Find TV Drug Ads Annoying:
Most physicians we have talked to also find commercials for prescription drugs offensive. They never imagined that patients would come into their office asking for powerful prescription drugs to treat serious medical conditions like type 2 diabetes or lung cancer. Trying to explain why one of these new medicines might not be right for you could be aggravating and time consuming.
PhRMA’s Support for Drug Ads:
The organization that represents most major drug companies, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), responded to the news release from the AMA by telling Bloomberg:
“Providing scientifically accurate information to patients so that they are better informed about their health care and treatment options is the goal of direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising.”
Getting Around FDA Rules About Drug Ads:
The FDA requires drug companies to reveal the most serious side effects of the medications they advertise to the public. Ad agencies have found ways to make the messages less scary. One of the most common tactics is to show pictures of people having fun, smiling or playing with dogs or children during the voice-over about severe adverse reactions.
Abilify TV Commercial:
As an example, consider an ad for the antipsychotic drug aripiprazole (Abilify). It was being promoted as an add-on to an antidepressant. The announcer read:
“Abilify is not for everyone.
“Call your doctor if your depression worsens or if you have unusual changes in behavior or thoughts of suicide…
“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.
“Other risks include increased cholesterol, weight gain, decreases in white blood cells which can be serious, dizziness on standing, seizures, trouble swallowing and impaired judgment or motor skills.”
While this long list of side effects was being read, the cartoon woman interacted with her smiling cartoon character colleagues at work and then served lemonade to her smiling cartoon family at a backyard barbecue. It’s hard to focus on life-threatening drug complications when everyone seems to be having such a good time.
The Disconnect Between Death and Happiness:
Next time you are watching television and a prescription drug ad begins, we have an experiment for you to try:
First, turn the sound down on your television so you cannot hear a word and just watch the commercial. We suspect that you will come away with a strong sense that the medicine being advertised makes people healthy and happy. Most drug ads are really upbeat.
Next, when the same drug ad shows up, close your eyes and just listen to the words so you can actually hear the side effects and warnings without any visual distractions. Chances are good that you might hear: one or more of the following:
seizures, loss of hearing, difficulty breathing, agitation, hallucinations, thoughts of suicide, trouble swallowing, muscle pain, chest pain, high blood sugar, severe liver problems, swelling of your tongue or throat, heart attack, stroke, lymphoma, cancer, tuberculosis, heart failure, coma or death
All of a sudden drug side effects will seem more serious if you aren’t watching people playing with a dog, frolicking in a park or swimming in a lake.
What Can You Do to Stop Prescription Drug Ads?
Now that doctors have come out strongly against prescription drug ads, the American public could join them in calling for a ban on advertising prescription drugs to consumers. The U.S. and New Zealand are the only advanced countries that allow this sort of thing.
Let your Congressman know that you are sick and tired of prescription drugs ads and that the AMA is on the right side of this issue. The cost of medicine is high enough without adding objectionable commercials to the price patients have to pay.