Drug industry no place for consumerism

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Royal Purple Staff Opinion

March 8, 2016

We don’t think much about those poor guys with erectile dysfunction from the Cialis ads, but they are a little awkward to watch with mom and dad in the same room (also, those old guys seem to get “in the mood” at the strangest times).

Likewise, we don’t give much thought to the Zoloft ad featuring a woman battling depression, represented by a looming, cartoon storm cloud (an interesting portrayal of clinical depression to say the least).

We don’t think about those commercials, but we know exactly what they are: prescription drug advertisements. No matter the ailment, the drug industry has a cure and an ad to tell you about it. Just wait for commercial breaks on primetime TV to hear “ask your doctor if […] is right for you.”

But should consumers really be asking doctors which drugs are right for them? The editorial staff at the Royal Purple doesn’t think so. We believe drug ads targeted directly at consumers, short of being banned altogether, should have stricter regulations.

The prescription drug industry, along with its advertising, is larger than it has ever been. Over the past decade, consumer drug advertising has exploded into an industry that rakes in more than $10 billion a year, according to a study published by the US National Library of Medicine.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers say advertisements make consumers more aware of medications that are available to them, and help them make better decisions. The ads, they claim, provide scientifically accurate information and educate consumers about their available options.

Critics are not convinced. Some doctors and health economists argue the increase in advertising raises drug prices and encourages patients to request expensive and unnecessary medications and treatments.

Currently, the FDA regulates drug advertising, but their regulations do not require ads directed at consumers to explicitly state how much a drug costs, how well it works or if there’s cheaper, generic alternative. Because of this, patients wind up pressuring their doctors for specific prescriptions without looking for generic alternatives first.

FDA regulations do require that ads list the medication’s risks and side effects, but advertisers have gotten around those requirements with sneaky marketing ploys. Some ads have a rapid-fire list of side effects at the end. You’ve surely heard those before. The list of potential side effects generally sound much worse than the illness the drug is intended to cure in the first place.

There’re also “help-seeking ads” in which a commercial won’t name a specific medication, but it will provide information about the condition it’s prescribed for. The ad will guide consumers to its product, usually through a website that will suggest a prescription medication. Advertisers do this to avoid listing potential risks or side effects.

The advertising trend is spreading to other facets of the medical industry as well. Hospitals spent $2.3 billion on advertising in 2014, up 40 percent from 2001, according to Kantar Media. And the FDA doesn’t regulate hospital ads.

We live in a society that worships the consumer, but that attitude should not extend to the medical industry. Drugs, hospitals and treatments should be able to speak for themselves without ridiculous advertisements that cater to emotional appeals of patients.

The practice makes sense – who better to market drugs towards than sick people? But we’re better than that. The drug industry should be more concerned with peoples’ wellbeing than their profit margins.

This “ask your doctor” culture needs to stop. Doctors are the ones who know which drugs will benefit patients, and they know cheaper alternatives. The FDA must update its consumer drug advertisement regulations, or consumers will be more likely to become dependent on drugs they don’t need.