Advertising, to be clear, does not cause bad reactions from drugs any more than automotive ads are responsible for defects in cars. Drug makers must develop safe products, and the Food and Drug Administration must ensure that drugs it approves are safe and effective.
Questions about drug safety and side effects already led to Merck's withdrawal of Vioxx and Pfizer's agreements with the FDA to halt Celebrex promotion and to pull Bextra from the market. Johnson & Johnson CEO William Weldon wants the industry to reveal more about risks in drug marketing. That's good. Acting FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford has called for a complete overhaul of DTC promotion. That's welcome.
A one- or two-year moratorium on DTC advertising of new drugs is a good step to take now. The FDA in recent months approved two drugs with such restrictions: Purdue Pharmaceuticals agreed not to market analgesic Palladone to consumers for the first six months; Amylin Pharmaceuticals won't advertise diabetes medication Symlin for one year.
Suspending ads for new drugs would shift power back to physicians, giving doctors time to evaluate new treatments. Consumers still would have access to deep information on the Internet and to media coverage about cures. Advantage would go to the best treatments, not those with the biggest ad budgets.
After a drug had proved itself in the market, drug makers would be free to do DTC promotion. Media still could lose hundreds of millions of dollars in ad spending from drug launches. So be it. Regulators need to fix a broken system. An ad moratorium is a good start.