Selling You a Cure on the Telly: One Day We May See Sven-Goran Eriksson Advertising a Cure for Baldness on Television. but If We Relax Our Ban on Direct-to-Patient Advertising, Who Will Really Benefit? (Health)

Article excerpt

A worried-looking woman is pictured walking along a crowded New York sidewalk. The headline reads: "Millions suffer from chronic anxiety. Millions could be helped by Paxil."

This was an advertisement published in the New York Times Magazine lust weeks after the attacks of 11 September, when any reasonable New Yorker might have been expected to feel more anxious and worried than usual. Paxil is an antidepressant available on prescription for those suffering from depression and anxiety. Whether the advert is an example of gratuitous marketing or empowering people remains unclear.

The advertising of prescription medications to consumers, rather than doctors, is legal in just two countries, the US and New Zealand. In 2000, it was estimated that US pharmaceutical companies spent just under $2.5bn ([pounds sterling]1.7bn) on what is known as "direct-to-consumer" advertising. More than half of this, $1.6bn ([pounds sterling]1.1bn), was spent on TV adverts -- the average American is said to watch nine TV advertisements for pharmaceuticals every day.

At present, any advertising of drugs to consumers is banned in the UK. But that might change. The European Commission recently announced plans to relax controls on the marketing of medicines directly to consumers. Consumer groups fear that this is the first step towards allowing the full-blown advertising of drugs to patients.

Opponents argue that such adverts contribute to rising prescription costs by inducing consumer demand, especially for newer, more expensive drugs.

More worrying still, those drugs may be at best unnecessary and at worst inappropriate. Recent research found that patients who requested particular brands of drug after seeing advertisements were nearly nine times more likely to get what they asked for than those who simply sought a doctor's advice. But about half of the doctors later admitted that they might not have prescribed the same drug had the patient not specifically asked for it.

Another accusation levelled by opponents to direct-to-consumer advertising of pharmaceuticals is that it is "disease-mongering", encouraging healthy people to believe that they need medical attention. The heavy marketing of drugs for anxiety, baldness and shyness are cited as examples of this. The growing medicalisation of trivial complaints explains why more than 80 per cent of Americans admit to taking some sort of drug at least once a week.

Such fears have led to a backlash against pharmaceutical advertising in the US and New Zealand. In both countries, large-scale reviews were prompted by concerns about biased information and rising prescription costs. Further restrictions are now being considered, but both countries have stopped short of a total ban.

Proponents argue that pharmaceutical advertising can help improve the public's health by educating people about conditions and treatment options.

If the football coach Dan Reeves grinning out from the pages of Newsweek, with the caption "Taking care of my cholesterol has become an important part of my game plan", makes a 55-year-old man with previously undetected high cholesterol consult his doctor, the advertisement (in this case, for the cholesterol-lowering drug Zocor) has raised awareness, informed and empowered, and possibly saved a life.

If such people are persuaded to consult a doctor, then fewer are likely to end up in hospital needing expensive bypass surgery. So advertising, far from pushing up costs, can save money. Such advertising could even drive down the cost of the drugs themselves. According to a report from the US Institute for Policy Innovation, advertising lowers costs by expanding consumer awareness and increasing sales.

In the US, TV advertising only really took off in 1997, with a change in the regulations. Before that change, the rules required advertisers to include tedious lists of possible complications and side effects -- making short, snappy TV ads out of the question. …