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The People’s Pharmacy: AMA takes stand against ads for prescriptions

The sleeping giant has awakened. The American Medical Association (AMA) is the largest organization of physicians in the U.S. At its interim meeting in November, the AMA called for a ban on direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising of prescription drugs.

The doctors are concerned about “the negative impact of commercially driven promotions, and the role that marketing costs play in fueling escalating drug prices. ... Direct-to-consumer advertising also inflates demand for new and more expensive drugs, even when these drugs may not be appropriate.”

You have almost certainly seen a television commercial that urges you to “ask your doctor if [drug X] is right for you.” Informal polls that we have taken show that most people find these ads aggravating. Nonetheless, it is clear that this type of marketing is working.

Last year, the pharmaceutical industry spent more than $4.5 billion on consumer ads. That is up substantially from the prior year. The industry does not spend money on marketing unless it produces results.

The organization that represents most major drug companies, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), responded to the news release from the AMA by telling Bloomberg: “Providing scientifically accurate information to patients so that they are better informed about their health care and treatment options is the goal of direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising.”

The Food and Drug Administration requires drug companies to reveal the most serious side effects of the medications they advertise to the public. Ad agencies have found ways to make this message less scary. One of the most common tactics is to show pictures of people having fun, smiling or playing with dogs or children during the voice-over about severe adverse reactions.

As an example, consider an ad for the antipsychotic drug aripiprazole (Abilify). It was being promoted as an add-on to an antidepressant. The announcer read:

“Abilify is not for everyone.

“Call your doctor if your depression worsens or if you have unusual changes in behavior or thoughts of suicide ...

“Elderly dementia patients taking Abilify have an increased risk of death or stroke.

“Call your doctor if you have high fever, stiff muscles and confusion to address a possible life-threatening condition or if you have uncontrollable muscle movements, as these can become permanent. High blood sugar has been reported with Abilify and medicines like it and in extreme cases can lead to coma or death.

“Other risks include increased cholesterol, weight gain, decreases in white blood cells which can be serious, dizziness on standing, seizures, trouble swallowing and impaired judgment or motor skills.”

While this long list of side effects was being read, the cartoon woman interacted with her smiling cartoon-character colleagues at work and then served lemonade to her smiling cartoon family at a backyard barbecue. It’s hard to focus on life-threatening drug complications when everyone seems to be having such a good time.

Now that doctors have come out strongly against prescription-drug ads, the American public could join them in calling for a ban on advertising prescription drugs to consumers.

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Teresa Graedon holds a doctorate in medical anthropology and is a nutrition expert. Their syndicated radio show can be heard on public radio. In their column, Joe and Teresa Graedon answer letters from readers. Write to them in care of this newspaper or email them via their website: