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Overreaching is unpleasant side effect of DTC advertising

By Published on .

Direct-to-consumer prescription-drug advertising is being conducted in a parallel universe, a bizarro world.

On the face of it, DTC (direct to consumer) drug advertising makes little sense. Cultivating a mass market for a product with a specific and narrow range of effects seems to be a waste of money.

But the economics of drug marketing necessitate a gigantic payday. Hundreds of millions of dollars are often spent for research to invent a new drug, and then drug companies have to spend equal sums to get a broad range of consumers to use it before the patent runs out and other drug companies can sell their own (much cheaper) versions.

So the deck is stacked for the drug companies to overreach-to sell their wares beyond their primary market to users who might not need such powerful remedies.

And, if the drugs are the cause of adverse reactions-such as what happened with Vioxx and Celebrex-the Food and Drug Administration will be under greater pressure to demand a recall because the drug is in such broad distribution.

So my thesis is that DTC advertising is pumping up demand for prescription drugs beyond their normal market, and this wider distribution will force the FDA to take action to protect the people who probably shouldn't be taking the drugs in the first place.

The drug companies say that DTC advertising produces a more educated consumer who asks about how to treat various diseases and symptoms. Many doctors, on the other hand, contend that such advertising puts pressure on them to prescribe drugs that aren't needed.

Surely while there could be some truth that consumers become informed about the dangers of high cholesterol after seeing a commercial for Crestor, it's harder to justify a commercial that doesn't tell you what the drug being advertised is supposed to do. What justification can there be to build demand for a brand that makes you guess what its purpose is-beyond the fact that drug companies don't need to mention side effects if they don't say what the drug does.

The game, of course, is to hint at what the drug does without going over the line and inviting FDA scrutiny. The erectile-dysfunction ads bombarding the airwaves are great examples of how silly the game has become.

Viagra gets singled out because Pfizer didn't say what the pills were for while Levitra features a woman clad only in a man's shirt talking about "my man" and the satisfaction he gets from Levitra.

Meanwhile, ads for Cialis show a man and a woman holding hands in his-and-hers bathtubs. An announcer talks about when "the time is right," which must have signaled what the product does, because the ad also mentions side effects, including a warning to call your doctor if the intended result of using the product lasts over four hours.

When side effects are used as a selling point you know the whole process of DTC advertising has gone completely nuts.

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