They showed up in force when we editorialized in April that direct-to-consumer drug advertising for new products should be delayed until the industry gets an accurate picture of serious side effects.
No fewer than nine trade groups, calling themselves the Advertising Coalition, signed a letter stating that our editorial, "Drug delay the right move," "reminds us that under the First Amendment the press has a right to be wrong." It continued: "Rather than doing what is right for consumers, the moratorium suggested in the editorial would be anti-consumer." It urged us to "revisit your position and affirm the important value that prescription drug advertising-and all advertising-brings to our daily lives and well being."
Well, we don't hesitate to agree that advertising brings important value to our daily lives. That's why we were mystified when the associations were conspicuously quiet after Morgan Stanley and BP threatened to pull their ads when print media reported unfavorably on them. General Motors even canceled its ad schedule with the Los Angeles Times after the paper's disparaging words.
Let's see if I've got this straight: The ad trade groups contend it's not in the best interests of consumers for prescription-drug advertisers to delay ads to assess the dangers of a new drug. And by their silence are we to assume that it is in the best interests of consumers for advertisers to pull their ads if they don't like the editorial coverage? What happened to the "important value" that advertising brings to our daily lives?
If there were a hiatus on new prescription-drug ads, the marketers would make sure word would get out about alternatives. Johnson & Johnson, for instance, is running TV spots for Tylenol stating that the product is plenty strong enough because most people don't need the extra wallop of similar prescription products.
The "Advertising Coalition" letter contended that DTC ads have "contributed to improving the relationship between doctor and patients." But the Tylenol ad implies that doctors are recommending pills more powerful than needed, and a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found DTC ads "may have compelling effects on quality, potentially averting underuse while also promoting overuse." If DTC ads promote better relationships between patients and doctor, it's because the doctor prescribes what the patient wants, even, as the Tylenol ads imply, if it's more potent than needed.
That's bad enough, but what if the drug companies try to put favorable spin on studies of new drugs? The Wall Street Journal reported that the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine said three big drug companies were "making a mockery" of a government database designed to provide accessible information about drug trials. And companies failed to complete about half the studies ordered by the FDA after a new drug goes on the market, the Journal noted in another article.
If they're cooking the books on new drug research, isn't it even more important to go slow with consumer ads? With doctors prone to over-prescribe and drug companies working hard to make the trials look favorable, the massive ad expenditures behind a new drug will greatly expand the numbers of people who might be subject to unknown adverse reaction. Why take a chance when it involves life and death?
The one thing you won't see drug companies do is threaten to pull their consumer ads if the media publish negative stuff about their new products. They know advertising works, which is more than you can say about GM, Morgan Stanley and BP.