Prescription drug advertising: Some advocate return to ban
Stephanie Rodriguez
April 2005

You've seen the advertisements on television.

A woman plagued by allergies is suddenly able to leap through fields of flowers without a single sneeze.

A man smiles from ear to ear as he walks with newfound confidence in his romantic life.

These images of happy, healthy people in prescription-drug ads have created a controversy among doctors and pharmaceutical companies, who argue whether drugs should be marketed directly to consumers.

One of the fastest-growing areas for advertisers is the pharmaceutical industry, which spends billions of dollars each year advertising new drugs to consumers.

While these advertisements may help the undiagnosed, it can also create a demand for unneeded treatment.

"People are attracted to these drugs because they see these positive images on television," said Lynda Kaid, telecommunications professor at the University of Florida. "They see it as a quick fix to all of life's problems."

Direct-to-consumer advertising reaches 14 percent of all prime time shows on television, according to studies conducted by Kaid.

Advertising for drugs in the U.S. became legal in the 1980's.

The U.S. and New Zealand are the only two countries that legalize advertisements today.

"I think it's a bigger problem for the elderly than for the youth of our society because of some of the prescription drugs that they are advertising," Kaid said.

Vioxx is an arthritis drug that became successful due to millions spent on heavy television advertising, according to the Health Central Web site. The drug was pulled off the market in September of 2004 due to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

Of 538 newly introduced prescription drugs, 181 drugs should be avoided, according to Public Citizen Health Research Group.

"Although the elderly are affected the most by this problem, the youth are also affected," Kaid said. "The prescription drugs that are related to sexually transmitted diseases and psychological problems are drugs that grab their attention."

Dr. John Colon, physician for the Florida Department of Health, acknowledges that one of the leading prescription drugs in the market is Straterra, an Attention Deficit Disorder medication.

"I get young kids asking me about certain medications all the time, especially about Herpes or ADD drugs," Colon said.

In the past prescription drug advertising in the United States was directed primarily to doctors, who were the sole decision-makers when choosing prescription medication.

Today, pharmaceutical companies are reaching consumers through mass marketing in television ads.

The growth of direct-to-consumer advertising throughout the past 11 years has led the Food and Drug Administration to conduct a national telephone survey of adults and their views on drug promotion.

Seventy-two percent of adults surveyed recall seeing an advertisement for prescription drugs within the past three months.

Many doctors said that they are increasingly pressured by patients to prescribe drugs seen on advertisements.

"I think it puts the doctor in a bad situation because people tend to see symptoms and think they have them when they don't," Colon said. "It creates a confrontation between the doctor and the patient."

Proponents of television ads for prescription drugs say that the commercials serve as a valuable educational function to the public.

William Garst, pharmacy manager at Plaza Pharmacy, disagrees with doctors and thinks it benefits society to advertise prescription drugs.

"I think we get positive feedback from these prescription drugs," Garst said. "It is better to let people know that there are options out there for them sometimes."

Side effects of medication are another controversy between the consumer and the doctor.

Some doctors argue that companies cover side effects for only five seconds of a 30-second commercial.

"Most side effects go away after a while and people get adapted to them," Garst said. "When someone gets on a new drug, I make sure to follow up on them."

Pharmaceutical companies argue that they are not the reason why some patients are misdiagnosed.

While doctors think that the companies are just in it for the money, the companies say that they have sincere concern over their consumers.

"If someone has a problem and sees an advertisement for a new product, they might be motivated to try that option," Garst said.

Dr. Jose Llinas, certified psychiatrist at Meridian Behavioral Health, believes there should be legislation for the advertising of prescription drugs at the national level and advocates that direct-to-consumer advertising be made illegal again.

"There should be some form of ethical consideration," Llinas said. "Pharmaceutical companies used to be thought of as 'ethical' back when they only dealt with doctors and scientific journals."

Dr. Llinas argues that pharmaceutical companies use the advertisements as a marketing tool and are not necessarily interested in the benefit of the public.

"'Caveat emptor' is a Latin expression that means let the buyer beware," Llinas said.

Stephanie Rodriguez is a sophomore at the University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications.

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