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Source: Mercury News
Twelve years after a change in rules allowed drug companies to bombard our televisions with prescription drug ads, I still get angry every time one of these noxious commercials appears. No matter what the drug industry claims about their educational value, these spots are nothing more than the handiwork of snake oil salesmen pitching their potions to masses of people wholly unqualified to make informed decisions about such products.
Now the people who brought this sickening circus of misinformation to our TVs want to do the same for our online and social media experiences — and companies that I normally admire, like Google and Yahoo, are joining this unholy alliance in a cynical ploy to make a few extra bucks.
Since the flood of TV drug ads began in 1997, pharmaceutical companies have used these spots to pump up sales of prescription drugs by stoking our anxieties over the state of our health. Big Pharma spends billions each year on "direct-to-consumer" marketing, with the biggest chunk going to TV, where we now watch on average 16 hours of these ads every year.
The companies would have you believe they're helpfully educating the consumer about various diseases and encouraging them to visit their doctors.
Phooey. There is plenty of research that demonstrates how these sales tactics have contributed to the rising cost of health care, with little evident impact on improving patients' health. A 2006 study by the U.S. General
Accounting Office found that sales of a drug increased $2 for every $1 spent on advertising. A 2004 survey by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found that 65 percent of physicians felt consumer ads confused patients about the risks and benefits of such drugs, while 75 percent felt the ads led "patients to think that the drug works better than it does."
At a time when we're trying to reform the national health care system, and rein in costs, the last thing we need to do is to make it easier for drug companies to distort our health care choices. And yet, last week a shameless parade of pharmaceutical companies, advertising firms and Web companies spoke during a two-day hearing to petition the FDA to relax the rules for online drug ads, insisting they're just here to help consumers become better informed.
On its policy blog, Google says it shares the FDA's "goal of better understanding how to promote medical products online in a non-misleading and balanced manner."
"We need to get some adjustment to the way the medium is used because it's very different from print and broadcast — that's the main challenge," Yahoo Vice President David Zinman told The Associated Press.
What Google and Yahoo really want is a bigger piece of that $4.3 billion the pharmaceutical industry spent last year marketing their treatments, up from the $1.1 billion spent in 1997. Sadly for the Googles and Yahoos of this world, only 4.3 percent of those ad dollars go toward online advertising.
Those online ad dollars became even more elusive after the FDA took a bold step to protect consumers. The agency sent letters to 14 drug companies saying their search-based ads had to include relevant risk information or come down.
Ah, those pesky risk disclosures. The obligation to disclose is the reason all the happy talk of TV drug ads is followed by a litany of possible side effects and risks. The problem is that in those itty-bitty Google search ads, or a tweet, or a Facebook status update, there's just not enough room to stuff in those inconvenient warnings about diarrhea, vomiting, hallucinations — or a second head growing out of your back.
After months of badgering, the coalition of drug advertisers persuaded the FDA to hold hearings late last week to "clarify" the rules. The list of speakers was dominated by pharmaceutical, Web and advertising companies, with a handful of consumer advocates thrown in for good show.
The Snake Oil 2.0 allies proposed several versions of new online ads.
A Google ad includes one whole extra line stating some of the risks with a link to the full disclosures. Pharmaceutical trade groups proposed adding some kind of FDA seal of approval to online ads and tweets.
Marcia Angell, a former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, once famously said of drug companies and their ads: "They are no more in the business of educating the public than a beer company is in the business of educating people about alcoholism."
Despite the moaning from the drug corner, our health takes precedence over someone's desire to sell more stuff or pocket a few ad dollars. The FDA needs to stop this in its tracks.
Their message to Google and Yahoo should be a simple one: Just say no to expanding online drug ads.