As TV Drug Ads Increase, So Do Concerns

Experts question commercials' value to patients and health-care system overall

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By Dennis Thompson
HealthDay Reporter

SUNDAY, Oct. 4 (HealthDay News) -- You can't channel surf at all these days without stumbling across drug advertisements featuring happy people, sunny days, vague descriptions and a quickly mumbled list of side effects.

If you think you're seeing more of these ads than ever before, you're right.

The amount of money spent by pharmaceutical companies on direct-to-consumer advertising more than tripled between 1997 and 2005, growing from $1.3 billion to $4.2 billion since restrictions governing drug ads were relaxed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, according to the California Public Interest Research Group, a public advocacy group nicknamed CalPIRG.

Only the United States and New Zealand allow pharmaceutical companies to advertise their medications directly to consumers, according to the FDA.

Doctors and patient advocates say the companies are getting good returns on their investment. Spending on prescription drugs has grown faster than any other type of health-care spending in the United States. "If you just look at the number of prescriptions issued since restrictions have lifted, they've definitely gone up," said Michael Russo, a health-care advocate for CalPIRG.

However, there is concern in the medical community that the drug ads could be damaging to both patients and the health-care system.

"I think the advertisements can serve a useful purpose by making people aware of products available to them," said Dominick L. Frosch, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. "We want people to make informed decisions so they understand the specific risks and benefits of following a certain treatment.

"But the benefit information in these ads is often described in vague, general and emotionally driven terms, and the risk information also is not presented in a very helpful way," Frosch said. "The current format of the ads doesn't do a very good job of making sure patients are well-informed."

Concerns about drug ads focus on several issues:

  • Do they prompt patients to ask for the wrong treatment? "The side effects get read out very quickly," Russo said. "The ads also can give a very misleading idea of what the benefit of the drug is." People could be asking for drugs from a doctor without having a solid understanding of what they could gain or lose by taking the medication.
  • Do the ads lead to overprescribing? Patients come in asking for a medication they saw on television, and many doctors will probably go along with the requests rather than argue with their patients, Frosch said. "Doctors and patients don't have a lot of time. About 15 minutes these days," he said. "If a patient asks for a product and the doctor thinks it's not an appropriate product, it could take some time for a patient to be dissuaded."
  • Do the ads increase medical costs and patient risks? Experts say this could happen because the ads generally promote newer, more expensive and less-tested drugs over tried-and-true medications. Pharmaceutical companies spend their advertising money marketing drugs that are just hitting the market, and people are more likely to ask for those new medications than allow their doctor to provide them with an older, more established drug that could be just as effective, Russo said. This increases medical costs because the newer drugs are more expensive, and patients are at greater risk because newer drugs have not been "road-tested," he said.

As an example, Russo cited Vioxx, a pain medication that was heavily marketed by its maker but later yanked off shelves when it became apparent the drug increased the risk of heart attack in some people.

"The fact that it was so heavily marketed magnified its ultimate damage," Russo said.

Frosch provided a basic prescription for improving the ads and making them more helpful to consumers: Clearly describe who the drug will help and provide accurate and unemotional information about its benefits and risks.

"When you watch the ads now and you hear the risk information, you often see imagery of people being happy and doing nice things while the information is telling you about some not-so-nice things that could happen," Frosch said.