The Side Effects of Rx Advertising

04/09/2015 04:55 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2015

If you're a TV viewer, you might be feeling like your set has been hijacked by the pharmaceutical industry, with one drug ad after another. Not only are there more commercials in general these days, but ads for medications have become a dominant category. Blame it on the growing population of seniors. The TV audience is greying considerably.

The alarming thing is that much of the drug advertising you see is for prescription drugs, something that used to be strictly confined to doctors.

Back in the early days of TV, the only medicines advertised were benign, over-the-counter products like upset stomach remedies and cough syrups. Then in 1997 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for better or for worse, allowed drug companies to advertise prescription medicines to consumers on TV as long as they included a fair balance of benefits and risks. That's why the commercial you're watching switches from all the wonderful things the drug can do for you, to a voiceover that rushes through a list of sometimes horrifying potential side effects, before returning to the smiling actors and the request to "ask your doctor" if the product is right for you.

Okay, so what's wrong with that?

Well suppose you're a doctor. Patient X comes in to see you. He's recently seen a commercial about a new drug for his condition and asks you for a prescription for it. You try to explain why it might not be right for him, but he's insistent on getting that prescription. He's taken up a lot of your time about a subject that used to be your prerogative exclusively, and if you don't prescribe it he'll find someone who will. According to the World Health Organization, "When a patient asks for a specific drug by name they receive it more often than not."

There is admittedly another side to the argument of whether it was a good idea to allow direct-to-consumer (DTC) drug advertising on TV.

The pharmaceutical industry's position is that DTC advertising increases people's awareness of disease and available treatments, and encourages doctor visits to discuss their health issues, visits that might not happen otherwise.

Among the many detractors is the American Academy of Physician Assistants, which urges that "any DTC advertising by pharmaceutical companies be based on disease state only, without mention of a specific drug by name."

Such a change is hardly likely to happen since every dollar spent on DTC advertising produces $2.20 in sales (according to a survey of 64 drugs).

The FDA, which opened this Pandora's box in 1997, doesn't have the manpower to adequately police their actions. While all DTC drug advertising is supposed to be approved by them, the reality is that many ads run for a long time before the FDA ever sees them.

In summary, the problem isn't with the drugs themselves, but with the marketing. The fact remains that our drug companies have invested many billions overthe years in research and development, and turned out a remarkablenumber of drugs that have led to an increase in longevity and quality of life.

The problem is that DTC advertising can take medical decision-making out of the hands of professionals and put it into the hands of TV viewers who can easily be seduced by what they see.

You and I aren't going to solve this, but hopefully we'll learn to balance what we see on TV about a drug, with respect for the greater knowledge of the person in the white jacket.