Ask the doc: What's the deal with drug ads?

Jan. 21, 2014 @ 11:10 PM

Doc: Does anyone ever ask for one of those advertised drugs after hearing all of the possible side effects the drugs can cause?

Answer: Yes. And if they go to the pharmacy to get the medication, they call back asking why the drug cost so much or their insurance won't cover it.

The pharmaceutical industry spent $27 billion in America in 2012 on marketing medications to doctors and “direct to consumer” advertising. “Direct to consumer” advertising is best known for the television commercials that interrupt dinner or a football game with words that are rarely used around the dinner table or in mixed company. It also includes print media such as newspaper and magazines.

According to a Pew Charitable Trust report, $3 billion of the $27 billion was spent on advertising to consumers in 2012. It is a tightly regulated process with the FDA serving as the overseer.

The television commercials for directly marketing to consumers began in 1997 when the FDA eased regulations on the industry. Only two countries allow this type of advertising: the United States and New Zealand. The words used are carefully chosen and each ad must included potential reactions and side effects.

It works, too. Research has shown that consumers believe only “safe” drugs are advertised and that one in three will actually ask their physician about an ad. Physicians find themselves either defending why it isn’t appropriate, or when it would be, or that there is a suitable generic alternative that is reasonably acceptable for the same condition.

The description of the side effects and reactions that we have all learned to tune out after the nausea from the ad sets in, are common ones seen in research and required by the FDA to dispel the myth that any drug is completely safe.

Think about it, though. What if bottled water was advertised in the same way?

“Big Pharma’s new drink, Aichtoome, the generic name ‘waterterizam,’ has been shown to cause frequent urination, abdominal bloating, a sense of coldness, frequent diarrhea, and strange taste in the mouth. Some reports of coughing or even choking have occurred with Aichtoome. Others have experienced Aichtoome reflux with a cold sensation in the chest area. A rare occurance of Aichtoome flying out of the nose has occurred if laughing while consuming Aichtoome….”

The point is that any product can have side effects, and drugs clearly can have some life-threatening complications from being used simply as they are intended. That is why a conversation about the risks and benefits of using a drug should occur and the information printed for patients should be read. Some patients choose to proceed, others decide to wait it out.

An informed patient is a good thing. A paranoid patient who is afraid of every side effect they hear or read should have a long conversation with their physician before ever taking the medication in question.

As a physician, I believe the advertisements are good for discussion, with one glaring, unexcusable, unnecessary, and uncalled-for exception.

It is the ED ads. And I don’t mean the “emergency department,” either.

I would defy anyone to find any man over the age of 21 who is not aware of the three prescription products available to turn back time in the privacy of their bedroom — most likely with a spouse who would just as soon spend the $25 dollars each pill costs on a nice dinner.

Nevertheless, the ads continue with bluer colors, catchy little jingles, catchier phrases (poor choice of words, I know) and strange scenes with two bathtubs. I always wondered why two bathtubs and not one.

The problem, and I must emphasize, MAJOR problem, I have with these ads is the precautionary verbage at the end of the ad. You might recall them as the ones when most men giggle and joke about calling their friends.

What would happen if a man sat next to a child in a city park and said the very same phrases? And yet, it is perfectly okay for the very same words to blare from the television in the middle of a Saturday afternoon SEC football game? While the kids are watching with the family?

And then the child says, “Mommy what does ... mean?”

It is time for the pharmaceutical industry and television broadcasters to reconsider this specific area of advertising. The children don’t need to hear it, and the spouse wants to save some money for that nice dinner.

Eric J. Littleton, M.D. is a Family Physician in Sevierville, TN. His new office is located at 958 Dolly Parton Parkway. Topics covered are general in nature and should not be used to change medical treatments and/or plans without first discussing with your physician. Send questions to