Drug Advertisements And The Media

GlaxoSmithKline sponsors NBC Nightly News on a regular basis. I have serious doubts as to the impartiality of news coverage, in medical matters, when your news coverage is paid for by a pharmaceutical company. I doubt that NBC would be likely to bite the hand that feeds it, and this makes the current situation one that seriously jeopardizes the objectivity of the news media.

Direct to consumer (DTC) advertising is banned in every country of the world except for the USA and New Zealand. Sick of seeing advertisements of drugs for such dubious ailments as ‘restless leg syndrome’, and such personal complaints as diminished sexual capacity, on their television screens, some members of Congress want to restrict this direct to consumer advertising.

More information on DTC advertising and its history is found in this op-ed article in the LA Times on the subject from which I quote:

In 1997, however, the Food and Drug Administration — encouraged by the Clinton administration — relaxed its rules on this issue. The pharmaceutical industry was given a green light to bypass providers and market its wares directly to consumers.

To gauge the effect of that change, just follow the money. The year before the ruling, drug companies spent $595 million on DTC advertising, according to the Food and Drug Law Journal. Within a year of the change, their spending rose to $844 million. By 2000, it shot up to $2.24 billion. And an August 2007 New England Journal of Medicine article put the total for all drug-related marketing in 2005 at $29.9 billion, with $4.1 billion spent annually on DTC advertising. That’s more than $11 million a day.

Although “prescription drug spending remains a relatively small proportion (11%) of personal healthcare spending, it is one of its fastest-growing components, increasing at double-digit rates” between 1993 and 2001, says a 2003 Kaiser Foundation study.

Pharma’s misquided TV pitches

Antidepressant ads on TV and on webpages are now a common occurrence, and there is even a television advertisement for the powerful antipsychotic, Abilify, billed as the drug to use for depression when all else fails. Serious concerns are raised by these advertisements that while extolling the benefits that these drugs would give to their purchasers, trail a litany of disturbing side effects the drug companies would have their viewers shrug off.

A few years back we got our most glaring example to date of what can go wrong with drug advertisements in the case of Vioxx. Millions and millions of dollars went into an advertising campaign to promote the use of this drug for treating people suffering from arthritis. Later Vioxx was found to cause heart disease and stroke. The drug was pulled from the market, but not before it had taken tens of thousands of lives, and left hundreds of thousands of people in ill health.

Liquor and cigarette advertising is regulated because of the serious health complications that can come of the use of such products. Fraud is also an issue in the case of products that make exaggerated claims, or that don’t do what they would purport to do. Some pharmaceutical products are of dubious medical value while others are known to cause serious health problems. It is time we take a serious look at our need to ban, or at least, seriously regulate, the advertisements for these products.

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