Actors experiencing rashes, heart pain or fatigue. Cut to smiling elderly people, women dancing through fields, couples holding hands and grandmothers hugging their grandchildren. “May cause rashes, heart pain, fatigue, constipation, diarrhea, headaches, suicidal thoughts, cancer or even death.” Throw in a heartwarming song and you have the script for a televised pharmaceutical ad.
Americans have grown as accustomed to viewing advertisements for drugs as for fast food or cars. However, being bombarded with ads for medications is not as common as one might think; in fact, the United States and New Zealand are the only two countries worldwide that permit direct-to-consumer prescription drug advertising.
Proponents of prescription drug advertising claim that these advertisements encourage people to take initiative and have conversations with their doctors about their health. Patients who come to their doctors asking about an antidepressant advertised on television may never have otherwise broached the subject of their worsened mood.
Realistically, pharmaceutical companies are not marketing their drugs to consumers with the goal of creating an educated, healthier community; at the end of the day, they are simply trying to sell a product. These intentions lead to many problems with the way that prescription drugs are advertised.
While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does have guidelines for pharmaceutical advertising, these rules are not comprehensive. All advertisements are required to include the drug’s name, at least one FDA-approved use and the most significant risks. That’s pretty much it. Drug ads do not have to include any information about cost, how the drug works, the effectiveness of the medication or the rarity of the condition being treated. Furthermore, the FDA cannot mandate prior approval of ads, so all ads are reviewed following release to the general public; this means that a misleading advertisement can be aired and viewed by many people before being withdrawn. The FDA does not even have the power to ban the advertisement of drugs with serious side effects.
The way that information is presented in these advertisements can also be misleading. Those happy grandparents and laughing women are meant to draw your attention away from the list of side effects being rattled off. Stating the most severe complications at the end of that list makes many people think those risks are less likely. Further, risks are played off as less serious with terms such as “may” or “mild”. This leads to more people requesting medications they may not actually need and more physicians over-prescribing medications to their patients. While the pharmaceutical companies make money, patients end up taking unnecessary and potentially harmful drugs.
The advertisement of prescription drugs may also be contributing to the rise of healthcare costs. In 2017, over $6 billion was spent on pharmaceutical advertisements alone; expensive advertising raises the price of medications. These higher drug costs translate to increased insurance premiums and copays for everyone; for the uninsured or people who have to pay out-of-pocket for “specialty” medicine not covered by insurance, medication itself can be incredibly costly.
In most countries, it is the role of the healthcare provider to assess a patient’s concerns and decide on the most fitting course of action to treat those problems. Direct-to-consumer drug advertising gets in the way of this process by sending patients to their doctors with a list of medications, begging for a prescription. This should not be how the healthcare system works. Patients should trust their doctor with their health issues and doctors should be able to listen attentively to develop an effective healthcare plan without outside influences.
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Veronica Eskander is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.