Drug Advertising Tsunami Headed Towards Consumers

A gigantic wave of drug advertising may be headed our way, and consumers need to grab on to a few facts about drug marketing to keep from being swept up in lies and misconceptions.

This advertising tsunami was predicted in a recent article in Ad Ageabout how marketing agencies are gearing up for a surge in pharmaceutical business based on recent new drug approvals. The article quoted the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics as saying world-wide spending on medicines will reach nearly $1.3 trillion by 2018, an increase of about 30% over 2013. Here in the U.S., the FDA approved 43 medicines in 2014 – the most in any year since the 1990s.

Forearmed is Forewarned

As patients, most of us rely on our doctors to tell us what medicines will provide the best treatment. But as consumers, we can also do our part not to get caught up in drug hype by understanding a few realities.

First, the FDA does not review and approve all advertisements for drugs before their release. After an ad appears, it can take months for the FDA to investigate and require a company to pull false or misleading ads. By then, millions of prescriptions may have been filled. As a dangerous drug and medical device attorney, I see first-hand how these illegal ads can, and often do:

  • State or imply that the drug can treat a condition when the FDA has not approved the drug for such use. This is called “off-label” promotion and its use is rampant. An example is the antipsychotic drug Abilify, often prescribed for depression or anxiety.
  • Make claims that are not supported by adequate evidence
  • Misrepresent data from studies
  • Overstate the drug’s benefits
  • Suggest that the drug can be used in patients with specific characteristics when the drug hasn’t been shown to work or to be safe in such patients. An example of this is Miralax, the popular laxative highly promoted for use in children, but never tested as safe for children.
  • Leave out or downplay risk information. Examples include the diabetes drug Lipitor, antibiotics Levaquin, Cipro and Avelox, and the anticoagulant Pradaxa.
  • Appear to be a “help-seeking” or disease awareness ad but recommend or suggest a particular prescription drug. An example of this are ads targeting men whose only “condition” is aging, but recommend a testosterone supplement.

Secondly, federal law does not ban drug companies from advertising any kinds of prescription drugs, even ones that can cause severe injury, addiction, or withdrawal effects.

Thirdly, drug ads are NOT required to tell you how the drug actually works, how quickly it works, how many people have the condition the drug is supposed to treat, and how many people may be helped by the drug.

Unscrupulous drug companies knowingly promote drugs for purposes they aren’t intended for, omit or downplay risks, and prey on vulnerable populations by claiming benefits that aren’t unsupported by evidence. Doctors are also victims of these companies. Be sure to check out the facts of a drug before pressuring your doctor for a prescription. Keep you and your family safe. Survive the drug tsunami.

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