Relaxed Advertising Regulation Concerns Physicians

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- "Blue skies smiling at me... Nothing but blue skies do I see."

Set to a catchy tune and images of a colorful soaring balloon, the Schering-Plough commercial for its Claritin allergy medicine, and others like it, are increasingly spurring patients to ask for specific drugs when they visit allergists like Stanley Lane. The inquiries have become more common since last August, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration took controversial steps to relax standards for broadcast advertising of prescription drugs, the American Medical Association says.

Lane, who practices in Moorestown, N.J., estimates between 10 percent and 15 percent of his patients ask for specific brands. While he says his patients listen to him if he thinks a different drug would be more appropriate, "usually, you want to go along with what they're asking -- it makes for a better relationship." That's music to the ears of companies such as Schering-Plough, which in 1997 tallied up worldwide sales of $1.7 billion for its Claritin, up from about $1.2 billion in 1996. It's not such good news for managed care companies, which face rising drug costs, helped along by increased demand for pricey drugs advertised directly to patients. "This appears to be primarily a tool of the pharmaceutical manufacturers to bypass some of the managed care interventions that we have," said Robert Seidman, vice president of pharmacy for Blue Cross of California, an operating subsidiary of Wellpoint Health Networks. Foes of direct-to-consumer advertising, including consumer groups, medical associations and a majority of doctors, say the commercials aren't properly emphasizing the risks inherent in prescription drugs. And managed care companies worry that the ads are adding to their costs by prompting patients to see a doctor unnecessarily to ask about getting an advertised drug. "The advertising is purposely directed at driving patients to demand medications -- irrespective of whether those medications are medically necessary," said Francis Crosson, the top physician at Kaiser Permanente. He added that doctors are spending more time with patients "dealing with prejudices" they've garnered from ads. For managed care companies, demand from consumers targeted by the ads will help drug costs at health plans continue to rise 12 percent to 15 percent per year, according to Norm Fidel, an analyst and money manager at Alliance Capital Management with $600 million in health funds under management. While direct-to-consumer advertising is a good concept, the FDA's guidelines are too lax on drug companies, according to Seidman. Many of the ads don't properly convey the risks that come along with any prescription drug and could lead to problems down the road, he argued. "When you see the commercial, you see all the bright and happy people. And then at the end, very quickly you hear all the side effects," Seidman said. "There's a lot of fizzle associated with this." His concerns are echoed by the watchdog group Public Citizen, the American Medical Association and a majority of doctors, according to surveys by the industry consulting group IMS Health. Results to date of an updated survey by the group found that about 65 percent of doctors want to see direct-to-consumer advertising decrease or stop altogether. …


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