Truth in Advertising: Rx Drug Ads Come of Age

Article excerpt


DETECTIVE: Okay sweetheart ...

DETECTIVE: ... what happened to that beautiful nose?

WOMAN: I think an allergy got me.

DETECTIVE: Not so fast--

It might feel like an allergy, but what if it isn't?

You may have seen the advertisement: A melodrama of crime and corruption, conflict and emotion, centering on indoor hit men like dust and dander, and outdoor hit men such as pollen and ragweed, all threatening to offend a young and very beautiful woman's nose. The 45-second broadcast ad covers everything from talking to your doctor to the possible side effects that people can expect. Then the narrator mentions "Flonase."

Entertaining though it may be, the Food and Drug Administration says this promotional piece about nasal allergy relief also has all the elements of a well-crafted, easy-to-understand prescription drug advertisement directed at consumers, and it meets agency requirements for these ads.

Direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising of prescription drugs in its varied forms--TV, radio, magazines, newspapers--is widely used throughout the United States. DTC advertising is a category of promotional information about specific drag treatments provided directly to consumers by or on behalf of drag companies. According to the U.S. General Accounting Office--the investigational arm of Congress--pharmaceutical manufacturers spent $2.7 billion on DTC advertising in 2001 alone.

The Controversy

Whether it's a 1940s, detective-style film noir of unusual allergy suspects or a middle-aged man throwing a football through a the swing announcing that he's "back in the game," the DTC approach to advertising prescription drags has been controversial. Some say that DTC promotion provides useful information to consumers that results in better health outcomes. Others argue that it encourages overuse of prescription drugs and use of the most costly treatments, instead of less expensive treatments that would be just as satisfactory.

There seems to be little doubt that DTC advertising can help advance the public health by encouraging more people to talk with health care professionals about health problems, particularly undertreated conditions such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

DTC advertising also can help remove the stigma that accompanies diseases that in the past were rarely openly discussed, such as erectile dysfunction or depression. DTC ads also can remind patients to get their prescriptions refilled and help them adhere to their medication regimens.

On the other hand, ads that are false or misleading do not advance--and may even threaten--the public health. While the FDA encourages DTC advertisements that contain accurate information, the agency also has the job of making sure that consumers are not misled or deceived by advertisements that violate the law.

"The goal here is getting truthful, non-misleading information to consumers about safe and effective therapeutic products so they can be partners in their own health care," says Peter Pitts, the FDA's associate commissioner for external relations. "Better-informed consumers are empowered to choose and use the products we regulate to improve their health."

How Ads Affect Consumers

The FDA surveyed both patients and physicians about their attitudes and experiences with DTC advertising between 1999 and 2002. The agency summarized the findings of these surveys in January 2003 in the report, Assessment of Physician and Patient Attitudes Toward Direct-to-Consumer Promotion of Prescription Drugs.

DTC advertising appears to influence certain types of behavior. For example, the FDA surveys found that among patients who visited doctors and asked about a prescription drug by brand name because of an ad they saw, 88 percent actually had the condition the drug treats. This is important, Pitts says, because physician visits that result in earlier detection of a disease, combined with appropriate treatment, could mean that more people will live longer, healthier, more productive lives without the risk of future costly medical interventions. …