Big Pharma's Change of Heart on Ad Ban Is Too Little, Too Late

Things Could Get Worse as We Start Seeing More Ads for Drugs We Don't Really Need

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As the skirmish between prescription-drug companies and the government over Big Pharma's ad practices continues, marketing directors are taking the rap for dragging their heels.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., in a letter to the CEOs of four pharmaceutical companies that run direct-to-consumer ads, said: "Marketing-department leaders have failed to commit to reducing misleading and deceptive ads, so we're now asking the CEOs to make this agreement."

The CEOs are apparently more enlightened and pragmatic than their marketing guys. After looking into the matter for a couple of months, they discovered that because it takes six months to educate doctors about a new drug, they can agree to a six-month moratorium on new drug ads to consumers.

Up to now the drug companies have been opposed to any sort of moratorium on new-drug ads to consumers. In a letter to Mr. Dingell and Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., the head of Johnson & Johnson stated that J&J does not believe a two-year moratorium (proposed by the two congressmen) "serves the best interests of patients, since it denies them potentially important information about new and fully approved treatment options and delays potential alleviation of symptoms and progress in treating diseases."

Yeah, but how about all those drugs such as Vioxx that cause adverse side effects nobody knows about until they have been widely used for a while?

As the attorney general of Oregon said when announcing a $56 million settlement with 30 states that could delay DTC advertising for months to years, "Merck's aggressive early promotion of Vioxx drove hundreds of thousands of consumers to seek prescriptions before Vioxx's risks were fully understood." Merck must now hold off advertising new pain-relieving drugs if the Food and Drug Administration recommends a delay for any reason.

Compounding the problem is that the industry is running out of blockbuster drugs to bring to market, and more and more drugs will be forced to rely on highly imaginative advertising to differentiate themselves from almost-identical products. And we're going to see ads for diseases we never knew were a problem (restless-leg syndrome, anyone?). Critics are bound to step up their cries that drug firms are getting people to ask for prescriptions they don't need.

Take Avodart -- please. Apparently, some "guys" (as they are always called) have the problem of an enlarged prostate, which forces them to make frequent trips to the bathroom. The ads for the drug show some poor guy interrupting important work, such as making scaled-down versions of planets (to go with a scaled-down prostate, get it?), to rush for the bathroom, to the annoyance of his fellow workers. My take on this problem is if nature wants you to relieve yourself on a frequent basis, maybe it's not a bad idea.

And did you see the story about Pfizer's Lyrica that's supposed to combat a disease called fibromyalgia, a chronic, widespread pain of unknown origin? It seems the doctor who wrote the paper defining the disease has changed his mind, but many other doctors say Lyrica, thanks to heavy advertising, will be taken by millions of people who don't need it. So what we might have are side effects of unknown origin for a drug that's supposed to relieve pain of unknown origin.

The ad groups have opposed any moratorium on the basis that it would be an abridgement of commercial free speech. But now that the drug companies have more or less agreed to the six-month delay, the ad groups are uncharacteristically tongue-tied.

With the distinct possibility of a Democratic White House and Congress -- not to mention states taking action on their own after the Vioxx settlement -- drug companies could later come to view threats of a two-year moratorium as the good old days.
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