Regulating Pharmaceutical Ads

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Remember Merck's Vioxx? It was once hailed as the ''miracle drug that could provide the benefits of a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug without the associated gastric problems.'' Vioxx was widely prescribed for osteoarthritis, menstrual cramps, and adult pain management. This drug had to be pulled from shelves after an FDA recall in 2004.

Why? Because Vioxx was found to increase the risk of potentially fatal problems such as strokes and heart attacks. If only it had been carried out earlier, the study that discovered this would have stopped the killer drug and its manufacturers from reaping billions in profits-an estimated $8 billion in the space of five years.

Until very recently, prescription drugs were not marketed directly to the public. However, companies now market both over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription drugs directly to the consumer. The public has even been besieged by direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA) of pharmaceuticals. “Miracle drug” and “wonder drug” are just two of the terms coined by advertisers hired by drug manufacturers to create hype that sells prescriptions.

As a result of these developments, abuses were bound to occur. Some patients even began demanding that doctors prescribe pills because the ads said so!

Many critics of pharmaceutical advertising contend that America is an overmedicated society and that lawmakers need to regulate all healthcare ads in whatever form they reach consumers.

In the meantime, healthcare advertising continues to make promises. Healthcare advertisements are often designed to persuade rather than educate. They rarely provide information about the success rates of the treatments they tout or alternative treatments. They are also often ambiguous and suggest dramatic improvements in quality of life. Television commercials for prescription drugs spend considerably more air time describing benefits than they do explaining potential hazards. These advertisements mislead people with, if not false, half-baked information.

A little regulatory resourcefulness on the part of lawmakers could harness the enormous power of healthcare advertisements in a manner that aims to improve public health. U.S. policymakers need not ban healthcare advertisements, but they should rein them in. Systematic surveillance and control would help prevent the marketing of another Vioxx and prevent misleading associations between marketing gimmicks and science.
On the net:

What Are the Public Health Effects of Direct-to-Consumer Drug Advertising?

Advertising is Good Medicine

Merck & Co.

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