Health Organizations Seek Limit to Direct-to-Consumer Drug Advertising

By Christine Cupaiuolo — November 15, 2006

A consortium of 38 health and women’s organizations are asking Congress to limit direct-to-consumer advertising, Molly M. Ginty writes in Women’s eNews, fearing the abundance of pharmaceutical commercials touting a pill to the new you may in fact be hazardous to your health.

“Fearing that direct-to-consumer ads may harm the doctor-patient relationship, pressure physicians to prescribe certain drugs and lead to the inappropriate use of medications, the group — backed by 200 physicians — is urging Congress to either ban these ads or subject them to a 3 percent tax and the inclusion of consumer warnings that indicate whether these drugs have been tested on less than 3,000 people,” writes Ginty.

“Direct-to-consumer drug ads are not under careful review by the FDA or any other agency,” says Deborah Socolar, co-director of the Health Reform Program at the Boston University School of Public Health. “And since many of them promote drugs that are new, they encourage people to use medications about which relatively little is known.”

Case in point: Vioxx, a painkiller that hit the market in 1999 with commercials narrated by a female voice saying, “Perhaps my biggest victory is being able to plan my day around my life instead of my pain.” In 2004, Vioxx, saw the largest prescription drug recall in history after researchers discovered it doubled the risk of stroke and heart attack, the No. 1 killer of U.S. women.

In defense of drug ads, proponents point to a 2004 University of Pittsburgh study that found these ads do not affect which medications patients receive, but whether they get treatment at all.

“Direct-to-consumer advertising can be a powerful tool in educating millions of people,” says Paul Antony, chief medical officer of the Washington-based industry group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. “Because of such advertising, large numbers of Americans are prompted to discuss illnesses with their doctors for the first time, become more involved in their own health care decisions and take their prescribed medicines.”

Cindy Pearson, president of the Washington-based National Women’s Health Network, disagrees. “The feminist health movement of the 1970s was about getting information into women’s hands via package inserts and health texts such as ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves,'” she says. “But now, drug and advertising agencies are feeding that language back to us with sales pitches masquerading as truth.”

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