Rid the airwaves of pharmaceutical advertising

On February 18, 2014 the Food and Drug Administration indicated their consideration to allow pharmaceutical companies to shorten the list of possible side effects seen by millions everyday and night in pharmaceutical ads and commercials.

In recent years, citizens — patients and consumers — have been bombarded with numerous and lengthy televised commercials in which pharmaceutical companies push their medicinal wares. It’s called “direct-to-consumer” advertising (DTC).

Such DTC efforts work for detergents, electronics, intimate apparel and fast food, so (pharma executives surmised) why not medications? Patients can see alluring ads, become more aware of prescription medications, learn their names and petition their physicians to prescribe them. Just like that. Practically every other aspect of the direct doctor-patient relationship, and the purity of medical practice, has been invaded, why not the doctor’s role to determine and prescribe the best medication for patients?

The FDA first approved DTC advertising of prescription medications in 1983, but the American Medical Association, physicians and others fought against it. The ads stopped for a few years, but in 1995, the FDA re-approved DTC advertising with the requirement that side effects must be included in the broadcast commercials and print ads.

That permission continues today, and millions of TV viewers and magazine readers are barraged day and night with a bevy of prescription medication ads. Now  in 2014, the FDA has determined that patients are basically “tuning out” the warnings — no one’s listening — and hence the FDA may suggest the ads be shortened with respect to the warnings. About the lengthy list of warnings, ABC News reporter Linsey Davis said, “The list themselves may induce side effects, like, makes your eyes glaze over.”

Why not rid the airwaves of pharmaceutical advertising all together? Why do we even have pharmaceutical ads on TV? Do we need them?

Patients can’t prescribe their own medicine. They really don’t know every nuance of every medication they might seek. Besides, how much money do those ads cost? For sure DTC advertising comprises a huge portion of pharmaceutical companies’ overhead, which, in turn, is passed on to the consumer-patients.

According to the infographic, Over-Medicated America, “The pharmaceutical industry spent 2x more on marketing than research and development …”

They add: “Merck had a 65.2% profit increase since 2008, and cut its R&D spending by $368 million last quarter.”

Completely omit the DTC advertising in all formats: broadcast, print and online. That will clearly decrease overhead, and those savings can be passed on to the patients who need medications.

Insurance companies, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies have so raped the medical profession. Return it to doctors and patients. Television and magazine ads have no place in prescribing medications. It’s up to medical doctors to prescribe the medications deemed best for patients; we don’t need patients being seduced by fancy advertising to nudge us to prescribe what will be best to treat the patient.

Our noble profession has been overtaken by big business, and it makes me sick.

Melody T. McCloud is an obstetrician-gynecologist, public speaker and author of First Do No Harm: How to Heal Your Relationships Using the Wisdom of Professional Caregivers and Living Well, Despite Catching Hell: The Black Woman’s Guide to Health, Sex and Happiness.  She can be reached on her self-titled site, Melody T. McCloud, MD and on Twitter @DrMelodyMcCloud.

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  • Lisa

    In total agreement….

  • doc99

    Make DTC OTC & let New Healthcare Provider CVS deal with the carnage.

  • J Rizzo

    I don’t agree with this article. Pharmaceutical advertising, especially in psychiatry, has been a godsend at normalizing mental illness and helping people recognize they can be open about their conditions and recognize that treatment is available. Pharmaceutical companies, whether we like it or not, do more for provider education than any other resource.
    We are not victims to pharmaceutical companies. It is up to us to explain the risks/potential benefits/side effects of medication to our patients.

    • PoliticallyIncorrectMD

      Somehow pharmaceutical companies provide their education in such a manner that disproportionately high number of Americans (compared to any other country) is able to diagnose themselves with mental illness and demand a “pill” for it, in stead of taking responsibility for their actions or learning coping skills : (

      • J Rizzo

        That seems a bit harsh. I would not simply tell a pt who has schizoaffective DO or someone trying to accept the fact that they are suffering from depression related to bipolar that they need to take responsibility for their actions and learn coping skills. That portion comes after stabilization. I would wager more Americans want drugs related to self diagnosis from WebMD and the like rather than pharmaceutical advertising.

        • PoliticallyIncorrectMD

          Patient with psychoses and true mood disorders are few and far between – they clearly need medications. I am referring to millions unnecessarily hooked on SSRIs, benzodiazepines, opioids, and lately (with “advances” in sleep medicine) sleeping aids to provide rose-colored glasses in attempt to make life look better than it actually is.

  • NormRx

    “One in particular enjoyed poking holes in their less than scientific
    sales pitches and was thrilled when he made a couple of them cry.”

    It sounds like you worked with some really nice people. I sold pharmaceuticals for 27 years and I never had some pompous, arrogant pharmacist make me cry. Lilly hired mostly pharmacist, Pfizer liked military men, the Pfizer rep in my territory was a retired Marine core fighter pilot. I also had a female veterinarian sales rep in my territory. I would loved to have seen your pompous co worker make any of them cry. Were there reps that were poorly trained? Of course, the same as in any profession.
    Not to worry though, pharmaceutical sales is dead, over 100,000 have lost their jobs.

    • Arby

      I really can’t convey the person he was in this bit of space. However, I will say it was not because he was pompous or cruel. It was because he believed in good medical care. He was always looking out for patients but that isn’t what drove him. What drove him was his passion for his profession. He couldn’t believe some of the talking points the reps were sent out with and he didn’t suffer someone that couldn’t think logically well. Had he run across your friends, he would have still grilled them. If what they were selling was an expensive, me-too drug with no better side-effect profile than the existing drugs, he would not have let it be put on the formulary. However, if your friends could hold their own in a debate and it if they were even mildly interested in running, canoeing or mountain biking he would have sat down to a beer with them after getting out of work. He still wouldn’t have put the drug on the formulary though.

      For that the many drug reps that have lost their job, I feel their pain on losing an income. However, I wouldn’t place that blame on passionate pharmacists or physicians or hospitals closing down access to doctors by reps. No, you can look to your corporate overlords for that. They ran your business into the ground. I won’t go on because I don’t want to get on that soapbox, but just to say, look around and see how obvious it is in all industries that are run by short-term greed.

      • NormRx

        Your friend held pharmaceutical reps in contempt and he let it show in his interactions with them. A better solution is simply refuse to see them.
        As far as business decisions made by management, I totally agree with you. It seemed like they were a bunch of lemmings. One pharmaceutical company would buy a generic house and they all wanted one. Then another company would buy a PBM and once again they all wanted one. Then one company would expand their sales force to a ridiculously high number and they all expanded their sales force.
        When I started in 1972 I absolutely loved my job, I actually loved Mondays more than Fridays. I retired in 1999 at the ripe old age of 57. The last five years I worked, I absolutely hated it. And it wasn’t just me, most of the doctors and nurses that I called on felt the same way about their profession. Many of them sold their practices to either hospitals or large medical groups. On the bright side, when I was working I made two visits to the ER with the classic symptoms of an MI, both times it was negative, I assume it was just stress. I have been retired for 15 years and I have not had one episode of chest pain.

  • Suzi Q 38

    My favorite ad is the Cialis ad…..
    I want to laugh and joke with my husband about it.
    The part where they talk about erections that last longer than 4 days…..
    I am exaggerating as usual, but they broadcast such a personal problem and then they rattle off all of the side effects which should scare any person.