13 May 2010

Possible Side Effects: Drug Marketing and the American Consumer

My entry today starts with an imaginary commercial. The following voiceover is read over warm and fuzzy slow motion footage of a woman taking pottery classes and playing with Golden Retriever puppies with what we assume to be are her grandkids...

“Reading this blog is not for everyone. Talk to your doctor about possible side effects. These may include nausea, dizziness upon standing, shortness of breath, loose stools, demonic possession, hair loss, voting, using a food processor, and talking to houseplants.
“Talk to your doctor today about this blog entry. This blog. Live a better life.”
Since when has real life had disclaimers? And how long will it be before my daughter turns away from the TV to ask me what “erectile disfunction” is?
There have been many sweeping changes to our world since I was in high school more than a decade ago. The dominance of TV pharmaceutical ads since they became legal in 1997 is not one of the positive ones. I can barely remember a time when I wasn’t bombarded with Baby Boomers looking earnestly at me (through the TV screen, of course) and telling me how hard it is to mention to their doctor that their pee-pee doesn’t work anymore. Or that they are ashamed by their ugly foot fungus. Or that “restless leg syndrome” has made their lives miserable.
Can’t we just go back to seeing the occasional Tylenol ad?
No. Drugmakers spend nearly $20 billion dollars a year to advertise their wares to the public. Nearly $4 billion of this goes towards patient-targeted ads. To make a comparison, James Cameron’s “Avatar” cost $500 million to make. So for the same price of these ads, the drug industry could remake “Avatar” eight times. Each year.
Melody Peterson, a former New York Times reporter, wrote a book, called “Our Daily Meds,” about how these drugs are marketed. Americans, she writes, “increased their spending on prescription drugs by 17 times between 1980-2003.” She also catalogues how these ads have become commonplace in everyday life, with Viagra logos on everything from stock cars to the pens in your doctor’s office. Here’s an excerpt from the book:
“A very powerful technique that the drug companies spend millions and millions of dollars on is hiring physicians to give lectures to other physicians on their drugs. It looks like the physician is up there giving his independent position on this drug, but often he’s been trained by an advertising agency. His slide presentation has been created by an ad agency. It looks like independent science, but it’s not.
“They want to get as many articles published in our medical journals as they can that show their products in favorable lights and will get physicians to prescribe them, so they often hire a Madison Avenue ad agency to write up an article for them or a study. The name of the ad agency rarely appears in the published version; instead, they hire doctors to put their names on as author ... It’s gone so far that some independent scientists are starting to view our medical literature as propaganda.”
Thankfully, at least small changes are being attempted. The FDA announced two days ago that its new “Bad Ad Program” is urging doctors to report ads and sales that violate FDA rules. Also, representatives from Pennsylvania (Democrat Robert Brady) and Virginia (Democrat James Moran) introduced a bill in the House last year called the “Families for ED Advertising Decency Act” that calls for the prohibition (“as indecent”) of any ad for a medication for erectile dysfunction.
It calls for non-broadcast of these ads between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., and at last check, the bill had been referred to the Committee on Energy and Commerce.
As much as I’d like to see this happen, I doubt it will. When even the FDA argues that ‘“direct to consumer” ads like these help educate and engage prospective patients about their healthcare options,” no one is going to put the brakes on the pharma gravy train any time soon.
Not when you are spending enough money to make “Avatar” eight times in a single year. Besides, according to in-depth analysis from the website visiongain.com (“an independent business information provider”), 2003 revenues for erectile dysfunction drugs alone was $2.12 billion – and were set to more than triple by 2009.
When that one particular (albeit high-visibility) category is doing that well, it makes me wonder how much money is changing hands, and what possible side effects this increasing dependence on pills for everything (“overactive bladder”) will have on the American public. Definitely nausea, anger, disgust…

1 comment:

petit said...

Unfortunately, most of the symptoms that drugs treat are due to obesity. It is truly appalling that food doesn't have to have the same disclaimers as the drugs when the food is the cause of most of these problems. And there should also be a maximum body fat allowed on TV so that the average slob can see how fat they have become. (See, for example, Discovery Channel's "Pawn Stars" )

And if you think that is bad, walk around the average High School and see the pots on the students!