Drugs in the air
May 27th 2008, 11:10
Last week I was in Chicago, where I'd started at university, and what impressed me most about the place was not the sheer size of Lake Michigan, the flatness of the Great Plains or even the deep-dish pizza.
What most hit me in the face was drugs. They were everywhere - in magazine ads, at airline checkout counters but especially on the air. I'd turn on the breakfast news, and hear ad after ad about Cialis or Allegra or
Claritin or Lunesta. Even drugs for dogs were being advertised on TV.
Eleven years ago, when the then Republican-controlled Congress agreed to allow the pharmaceutical industry to advertise, drug companies have taken their wares directly to the public. From 1997 through 2005, pending on direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising increased twice as fast as spending on research and development of new products or promotion of existing drugs to doctors. In 2005, drug companies spent $4.2 billion on DTC advertising-a figure that is growing by 20 per cent every year.
This tactic has revolutionized the way patients are prescribed drugs. Consumers gain daily familiarity with the latest in pharmaceuticals and now ask for them by name. A survey in Consumer Reports magazine last year revealed that more than three-quarters of the doctors surveyed claimed that their patients asked for drugs advertised on TV. But even more alarmingly, more than two-thirds of doctors admitted to writing out the prescription their patients asked for. Instead of being selected by discerning physicians, medicine is now all but prescribed by the patient.
Aside from the fact that the tail is now wagging the dog, the biggest problem with on-air advertising is that a soundbite doesn't present a balanced picture of a drug's downside.
When a 2007 University of Georgia journalism and mass communication team analyzed a week's worth of DTC ads, it found that the average one-minute commercial contained less than 8 seconds of side-effect disclaimers, a 30-second ad had less than 4 seconds' worth - and almost none of the side-effects appeared in text, but were mentioned in only a short voice-over.
The obvious result of all this is that 'meds' - their cute appellation in America - are increasingly sampled like Tic Tacs, and just as easily thrown down the toilet once a side-effect comes to light. Small wonder that this avalanche of easy-come, easy-go drugs makes its way into the water supply in both the US and Europe.
As reported in the June edition of What Doctors Don't Tell You, scientists from the US Geological Service tested the water from a large water-treatment plant fed by two small rivers. In these supposedly crystalline waters, the scientists discovered evidence of 40 prescription and nonprescription drugs.
After years of strictly hands-off, the US Congress is finally finding fault with the US Food and Drug Administration for its lax handling of DTC advertising.
Also, following a number of highly publicized drugs whose ineffectiveness and side-effects were allegedly concealed by their manufacturers, Congress is conducting hearings to crack down on the manner in which doctors are educated about drugs - which, at the moment, is almost exclusively through the greased-palm schmoozing of drug-company salesmen. If passed, two bills would provide unbiased materials for doctors on the safety of drugs, and force Big Pharma to disclose the amount of money given to doctors through payments, gifts, honoraria or travel.
While decidedly mild, these bills represent the first efforts of the American government to rein in Big Pharma's stranglehold on the information leak about their products, and a rebuke to the FDA for being too chummy with the industry they are charged with regulating. Long may it continue.
For more details, please consult the June edition of What Doctors Don't Tell You. Please click here for subscription information.