Drug Ads Aid Consumer Knowledge, but Overreliance Is Cause for Concern

Published December 10, 2016

Those who watch television have probably figured out the obvious: Pharmaceutical companies persuade people to ask their physicians for a multitude of medications.

Marketing drugs directly to patients instead of only to their doctors empowers patients to make better choices regarding their health care. A key part of empowering patients is reminding them, as with all other purchases, to review all alternatives. But some alternatives could also include choices other than prescription drugs.

Addictive Marketing

Drug companies’ marketing techniques have become highly sophisticated. Gone are the TV advertisements featuring a spokesperson standing before the camera talking about the product, as in the cold and flu drug spots of the past. Now, commercials are animated or depict people in forests full of flowers and birds, or they feature famous celebrities describing how the product helped them. Particularly memorable are commercials featuring animal predators or fantasy creatures cast as an illness creeping up on you. If an ad’s power of persuasion works, viewers may almost be convinced that they have the health problem depicted in the ad.

The Kaiser Family Foundation reported that in the United States, more than 4.06 billion  prescriptions were filled in 2015. That is an average of more than 10 prescriptions in that year for every man, woman, and child in the United States. Although Kaiser does not possess accurate numbers for earlier years, the foundation is confident the number has risen steadily since 2013, when the Affordable Care Act increased subsidies for millions of Americans taking prescription drugs.

Side Effects Include …

We seem to remember the creativity of modern drug ads but not the revealing list of a drug’s side effects, which are rapidly auctioneered at the commercial’s conclusion as the Food and Drug Administration requires. Many will agree that a drug’s side effects often sound worse than the problem the drug is intended to relieve.

Recent TV commercial examples include Otezla for skin care, which may have side effects such as depression, nausea, and upper respiratory problems. Humira, which treats rheumatoid arthritis, could hinder one’s ability to fight possibly fatal infections, including tuberculosis and lymphoma. Verberzi, given for irritable bowel disease, could cause pancreas and liver problems. Lyrica, which treats diabetic nerve pain, can bring on depression, suicidal thoughts, blurred vision, rashes, and hives.

The written instructions that accompany most of these drugs include the statement, “Your doctor believes the benefits are worth the risks.”

Patients as Doctors

No matter the medium delivering the message, the desired result is to persuade consumers to ask their doctors to consider requesting the product by name. This is not in itself a bad thing. We no longer see our doctors as miracle workers, and many have learned the patient should be considered the doctor’s most important source of information to help solve a medical problem.

Moreover, while pharmaceutical companies work hard to convince doctors of the efficacy of their products, they are now limited by American Medical Association (AMA) guidelines for what a physician may accept in compensation or honoraria for prescribing products.

A previous generation of savvy drug marketing campaigns started with sales representatives bringing catered food to doctor’s offices. Nurses and doctors could grab a free lunch and a five-minute explanation of a new product. The AMA now stands strongly against such techniques. Now, drug companies are focused directly on patients, and although this is a good thing, it surely encourages increased reliance on pills to solve every problem.

Back to Willow Bark

Our current society descends from very resilient ancestors: tough people who took medicine or visited a doctor only when they were thought to be near death or suffering some dire condition. We have come a long way from ancestors who chewed the bark of willow trees in order to ingest the active ingredients in aspirin. Today, we generally turn to a pill for every problem, and often another pill to counteract the side effects of the first one.

Clearly there are doctors who hesitate to go the drug/pill route, recommending non-drug protocols instead. One hopes this mindset will increase with the recognition of growing resistance to antibiotics. If doctors pay more attention to nutrition, good eating practices, and exercise, health care treatment can become more cost-effective for patients, doctors, government, and even drug companies.

The solution to excessive reliance on drugs must include consumers becoming better informed. Government has tried to help, but it has made mistakes, such as the decades-long recommendation that everyone eat low-fat diets, which often end up being high in fat-producing carbohydrates and sugars.

More government crusades and restrictions on advertisements are not the answer, but better science and health teaching in schools could help a lot.

Perhaps the best idea is for the drug companies to work together to improve everybody’s education on this subject, to prevent the government from feeling it has an obligation to step in and impose further regulations on advertisements.

Ken Root ([email protected]) is a columnist for the High Plains Journal and broadcaster for the Iowa Agribusiness Radio Network. Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director of The Heartland Institute.

Internet Info:

Michael Hamilton, “Jay Lehr: Make America Healthy Again with Exercise, Veggies, and … Global Warming!” Health Care News Podcast, The Heartland Institute, July 6, 2016.

Michael McGrady, “Study Falsely Touted as Proof Pharma Buys Doctors with Meals,” Health Care News, The Heartland Institute, November 2016.

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