Editorials

Side effects of drug commercials may include boredom, headaches, suspiciously high prices

This image provided by Pfizer Inc. shows a new print ad for Viagra, the world's top-selling erectile dysfunction drug. The company is planning a merger with foreign rival Allergan.
This image provided by Pfizer Inc. shows a new print ad for Viagra, the world's top-selling erectile dysfunction drug. The company is planning a merger with foreign rival Allergan. AP

If there’s a line between informational and idiotic, the pharmaceutical industry blurs it every day.

“You’ve reached the age where giving up isn’t who you are. This is the age of knowing how to make things happen. So why let erectile dysfunction get in your way? Talk to your doctor about Viagra. Side effects include headaches, flushing, upset stomach and abnormal vision.”

You know the commercials. They’re on all the time.

The Food and Drug Administration cleared the way for such direct-to-consumer ads back in 1997, and after a series of court decisions that determined the commercials are a protected form of speech, the industry has been rolling them out at a rapid pace ever since. In the past two years, drugmakers have increased their advertising budgets by about 30 percent to $4.5 billion.

It’s a morally cheap, if financially profitable, way to spend money, scaring consumers into demanding brand-name drugs from their doctors by introducing them to supposedly chronic “diseases,” such as restless leg syndrome and hypotrichosis (really thin eyelashes).

The American Medical Association has had enough.

At its meeting last month, the physicians trade group called for a ban on advertising drugs to consumers – a stance long held by the California Medical Association. The reason is simple: Consumers are driving up the overall cost of health care because they are asking for the expensive, patented drugs they see on TV instead of the cheaper, generic alternatives that doctors say are equally effective.

The pharmaceutical industry disagrees, of course. The trade group PhRMA swears the ads are informative because they increase consumer awareness, ultimately saving lives.

We think that diagnosis is a bit off. The United States is one of only two countries in the world that allows direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs – and while we Americans medicate ourselves a lot, we don’t lead the list of the world’s healthiest countries.

Besides, Big Pharma is far from altruistic.

The prices of generic and brand-name drugs have climbed steadily, with a nearly 5 percent increase this year alone, according to the Altarum Institute Center for Sustainable Health Spending. This is also an industry in which one of its leaders, Pfizer, announced a merger with a foreign rival so it could move its headquarters outside the United States and avoid paying taxes. It should come as no surprise that drugmakers can deduct the cost of direct-to-consumer ads from their taxes.

We encourage the AMA to follow through on its commitment to help reduce drug prices. Pulling ads for Viagra and its ilk may ultimately prove impossible to do, but the real prescription should be for transparency.

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