The Ads That Won't Go Away

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This month’s Advertising Age carried a news story about pharmaceutical companies and their advertising of prescription medications to consumers. They’re the commercials we’ve all come to hate… the ones that have us explaining certain “dysfunctions” to our curious 8 year old, or trying desperately to talk over the discussion of herpes played out on our family room TV in front of a teenager mortally wounded by embarrassment. Surely this wasn’t what the FDA had in mind when they relaxed the advertising rules for prescription medicines back in 1997?
Most members of the American Medical Association dislike direct-to-consumer (DTC) drug ads because they give patients the idea they can diagnose and treat themselves, and that there’s a pill for every ailment. Neither is true, and both are dangerous. Patients come in insisting on the drug they saw on TV, without being willing to consider generic drugs that are often cheaper and work just as well, or an alternative therapy that involves no drugs at all.
The most recent numbers taken from a March 2007 Consumer Reports show drug companies spent $4.86 billion on DTC advertising in 2005. As spending on DTC advertising rises, so have the number of prescriptions written (it would seem not all AMA members are reluctant prescribers) and drugs sold. For each dollar spent on advertising, the industry recovers $4.25.
And while drug companies readily admit DTC ads do drive sales, they insist that they build awareness and bring patients to their doctors, who then prescribe the drug. In the long run, this is supposed to reduce healthcare costs. Perhaps it will… someday. In the meantime, studies show that doctors are more than willing to prescribe the named drug — in one study anywhere from 2% to 7% of patients got the drug they remembered from the ad.
That can be trouble when you have incidents like the recent “misimpressions and distractions” of  Dr. Robert Jarvik, a leading heart health expert and inventor giving the impression in widely played TV ads that he had prescribed Lipitor (which he is unable to do) and actually took the medication himself (still unknown). It was this that prompted a letter to Pfizer by Michigan representatives John Dingell and Bart Stupak, questioning Dr. Jarvik’s credibility. Pfizer voluntarilywithdrew the ads earlier this year.
Sadly, that’s just one of many troubling incidents when it comes to DTC ads. 
Giving every appearance of bowing to government pressure (though the House Energy and Commerce Committee wanted a 2 year ban on ads), the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America has agreed to a six month ban on direct-to-consumer ads for new drugs, and further talks with the committee. How nice. 
The Advertising Age story concludes with a quote that’s hardly reassuring. “We accept PhRMA’s offer to discuss these issues seriously. We hope the discussions with PhRMA will result in an industry position that addresses the concerns that Pfizer, Merck, Schering-Plough and Johnson & Johnson continue to ignore.” 
In other words, buyer beware. Be very aware…
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