Few examples better illustrate the need for increasing regulation of our out-of-control pharmaceutical corporations than the blitz of drug commercials on television and in print media. Presently only two advanced countries allow direct-to-consumer prescription drug advertising – New Zealand and the United States.
It seems that the majority of commercials on TV presently are advertising drugs to treat a multitude of trumped up “diseases” in order to make even more billions for today’s obscenely wealthy pharmaceutical companies. And the slick multi-page ads that have invaded all of our popular magazines raise the same questions. Why are drug companies allowed to advertise this way directly to us, always advising us to “talk to our doctors” about this or that drug to treat a multitude of symptoms or diseases that most readers or viewers have never heard of.
Before 1997 there were no drug commercials on television. The FDA allowed direct to consumer advertising of drugs on television because of the actions of an FDA deputy commissioner, Dr. Michael J. Friedman whose next job was vice president at Searle Pharmaceuticals, just one of hundreds of examples of the “revolving door” between the FDA and pharmaceutical corporations. In an early post-1997 commercial Eli Lily Pharmaceuticals was permitted to market Sarafam, to treat a “disease” invented by Lily – PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder), a “severe” form of PMS. Thus the pattern was set for the hundreds of commercials on television and in magazines we see today, most for “diseases” and “conditions” invented by the drug manufacturers.
Pharmaceutical companies now spend approximately 19 dollars on marketing to every one dollar spent on research. Big Pharma would rather make slightly different versions of the big selling drugs that they already manufacture and market them under a different name in order to rake in even more profit. Perhaps you are wondering why Big Pharma hasn’t come up with a drug to treat Ebola, or many other diseases that effect people in poor countries. There’s no money in it, that’s why.
Remember Dorothy Hamill gliding over the ice and extolling the powers of Vioxx to alleviate her arthritis symptoms when this FDA-approved drug actually caused heart attacks and strokes in the approximately 27,000 people that took it and had to be taken off the market? And remember Dr. Robert Jarvik recommending Lipitor to viewers, when he was neither a cardiologist nor a licensed medical practitioner? These are prime examples of the chicanery, lies and deception we allow in the epidemic of drug commercials that smite our sensibilities and insult our intelligence daily on television and in print media.
I mean since when did “erectile dysfunction” become an epidemic? Why do the multitudes of people who have COPD have to “talk to their doctor” about Symbicort or BREO. And Osphena will help the millions of women who suffer from another “disease” – that of “painful intercourse”.
When did simple heartburn, which can be caused from eating too much, eating spicy food, eating too late at night or generally “eating stupid” and thus be easily treated by changing diet habits or just drinking a little baking soda and water, or taking an Alka-Seltzer or chewing a Tums, become “acid reflux disease” and instead of eating wisely you need to “talk to your doctor about” Nexium. Never mind, forget the doctor, you can now buy this dangerous drug, the famous “purple pill” over the counter in your pharmacy without a prescription. This highly profitable, yet dangerous and misunderstood family of drugs, known as “proton pump inhibitors” is said to be the second best selling class of drugs in the world. Even more worrying, there have been efforts to market versions of these drugs to mothers of infants to treat “spitting up”, a normal condition with which we have dealt with successfully without drugs for centuries. Yes, Prevacid, the prominent PPI drug now comes in a “child friendly” formulation.
And when did “Low T” become an epidemic and we needed to “talk to our doctors” about Axiron. Perhaps men watching the commercial fancy themselves being the squinty-eyed, whiskered macho man piloting his speedboat with the shapely babe beside him and think that they needed to take this dangerous drug to be like him. Testosterone boosting drugs have serious and dangerous side effects but profit is more important. And law firms are increasing business significantly by going after drug companies because of dreadful illnesses caused by testosterone enhancing drugs.
With all due respect and sympathy for the people who actually have these maladies, I am sure that any responsible doctor treating them has already discussed the various remedies which may provide some relief from symptoms or expand the possibilities for a cure. But in the meantime we are inundated by this flood of ridiculous advertising, I am sure to make us imagine symptoms where there are none in order to “talk to our doctor” and sell more of their drugs and make more money. These outrageous commercials come dangerously close to advising us basically to self-medicate, through the “talk to your doctor about…” dictum.
Drug companies spent $4.5 billion on Direct to Consumer advertising of their products in 2014, up 30 percent from two years earlier. But because the drug industry can deduct such expenses from their taxable income, and because such advertising has increased revenues and profits, it continues to be a bargain for Big Pharma and will likely continue to increase.
Here are a few of the more ridiculous television drug commercials I have been subjected to lately on my news and sports programs:
Androgel – another dangerous and often unneeded testosterone drug …”get the blood test…get your number…turn it up.”
Latuda – for bipolar depression -“ask your doctor if once a day Latuda, lurasidone HCL, may help you…”
Xarelto – for atrial fibrillation – “a-fib”, another dread “disease”, and also blood clots and “deep vein thrombosis”. And Xarelto’s dreadful side effects are now potential grounds for lawsuits, not mentioned of course in the ubiquitous goofy commercial with comedian Kevin Nealon, race driver Brian Vickers and golfer Arnold Palmer.
Humira – for “moderate to severe” Crohn’s Disease, plaque psoriasis, psoriatic arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis …and just lately “moderate to severe ulcerative colitis”. Wow, truly a miracle drug! “With Humira, remission is possible”. Guess what ? – without it remission may be possible as well.
Invokana – “a once-daily type 2 diabetes treatment that may help manage blood sugar levels for people living with diabetes”.
Farxiga – “an adult type 2 diabetes treatment used with diet and exercise to improve glycemic control”. Features goofily happy people doing normal things – is the viewer supposed to think that they are fighting diabetes and are fine now?
Crestor – the most moronic of all the commercials advertising dangerous statin drugs (read the research) featuring an infantile jerk dressed in orange dancing about because his cholesterol is below 100. No mention of the debilitating side effects caused by Crestor and other statin drugs.
Dulera – for asthma – “helps significantly improve lung function”…take a look at commercials “Amy’s World” and “Waterside in Costa Rica”.
Breo – for COPD. What exactly is COPD, when we have to have so many expensive drugs to treat it? My name is R-A-L-P-H and I have C-O-P-D. And I take B-R-E-O. Unbelievable.
Spiriva – also for COPD – tv commercials featuring an elephant following people around and sitting on their chests!
Lyrica – “ for diabetic nerve pain and …significantly relieves the chronic widespread pain of Fibromyalgia…ask your doctor about Lyrica”.
Hetlioz – “for Non-24, circadian rhythm disorder for blind people”. Why is this being advertised on television and in popular magazines for blind people? Maybe their glossy ads should more properly be in Braille.
Eliquis – for atrial fibrillation, again – “A-fib not caused by a heart valve problem”. Must be a real epidemic!
Linzess – for “irritable bowel syndrome with constipation (IBS-C)” “I’ve tried laxatives but sooner or later the constipation comes back like a pile of bricks”. IBS-C – now there’s a great new “disease”, likely better treated by an improved diet. Try raisin bran.
Abilify – for use with an antidepressant. Commercials feature an animated “A” tagging along with the antidepressant taken by the animated character. This drug is actually a very dangerous antipsychotic but sales have increased 30 percent since FDA approval (why?) for use with an antidepressant.
Chantix – “is proven to help smokers quit” – their anemic 44 percent claim is likely exceeded by the “cold turkey” method which has significantly fewer unpleasant and dangerous side effects.
Xeljanz – for rheumatoid arthritis pain. “Your body was made for better things”. “Ask your rheumatologist about Xeljanz”- but don’t ask him to remind you of all the miserable side effects.
Otezla – “Show more of you”. Another drug to fight the epidemic of “plaque psoriasis”.
Jublia – for toenail fungus – an animated big toe saying, “Fight it, don’t hide it…ask your doctor… is Jublia is right for you?” And “Make the call, don’t hide it – smash it” with John McEnroe. John should be ashamed! And now, another commercial featuring football celebrities Howie Long, Deion Sanders and Phil Simms. They should be ashamed too.
Brisdelle – (maybe the name of the Noven Therapeutics CEO’s country estate ?) – for hot flashes, a new “disease”.
Namenda XR – for Alzheimers, adding to Aricept “may improve” condition. (check the research on any of these “Alzheimers drugs” – they don’t help, are very expensive and could be harmful.)
Namzeric – Another deceptive drug for Alzheimers. There are no drugs to treat Alzheimers, yet the drug companies keep on deceiving us and taking our money promising only that they “may improve” symptoms.
Januvia – Yet another medication for type 2 diabetes. A once daily prescription pill that along with diet and exercise helps lower blood sugar in adults with type 2 diabetes.
Restasis– for “chronic dry eye disease” (“disease”? Give me a break.). “Make more of your own tears”. Ask your eye doctor about Restatis. Hmmm, wonder how this “disease” is spread. Mosquitoes? Not washing your hands?
Prevnar 13 – “Pneumococcal pneumonia can be serious…one dose of Prevnar13 can help protect you. Get this one done.” I really didn’t know I needed a vaccination for this rare affliction.
Pristiq – for depression, “Could Pristiq be right for you?”
Victoza – “Take charge of your Type II diabetes…”may” lower blood sugar, etc. Check the horrifying potential side effects that “may” affect your health if you take this stuff.
Onexton – “Stop hiding your acne and start fighting it”. One potential side effect is colitis, yes really, but do fight that acne, “Show your face!”
Levemir – “Today is the day to ask your doctor about Levemir”, for blood sugar control with Type II diabetes.
Anoro Ellipta – yet another drug to treat COPD. Really, I had not realized that we are having a true epidemic of COPD.
Harvoni – no, not a pizza place or the machine that resurfaces the ice at the hockey rink, but a drug to treat Hepatitis C (known in the commercial as “hep C”) “I am ready to put hep C behind me…I am ready to be cured!” Yes, and the cost is upwards of $800 per pill – more huge profits.
Botox – the most amazing wonder drug of all – not only used for the well known cosmetic treatment but now for overactive bladder, chronic migraine headaches, eye muscle problems like “strabismus” and “blepharospasm” (look these up), and “severe underarm sweating”. Also, “Ask if Botox could calm your bladder.”
Trumenba – “a vaccine indicated for individuals 10 through 25 years of age for active immunization to prevent invasive disease caused by Neisseria meningitidis group B”. Interestingly, of the approximately 500 cases of meningitis reported in the United States in 2012, only about 160 were caused by serogroup B, hardly a reason to rush out to get this vaccine “before the school season starts”.
Enbrel – another drug for the plague of “moderate to severe rheumatoid arthritis and plaque psoriasis”.
Myrbetriq – for yet another highly profitable “disease” – overactive bladder or “OAB” whose commercials feature a cute little animated bladder dragging its owner to the bathroom.
Tanzeum – “Once a week Tanzeum may help adults with Type 2 diabetes lower their A1C when combined with diet and exercise”, featuring a “Once a Week” dummy walking with a family.
Jardiance – “Hey, adults with type 2 diabetes! Your A1C called, it wants to get down.” Yet another drug which “along with diet and exercise” (likely much more important than the drug) promises to lower blood sugar.
Opdivo – to help lung cancer patients “live longer”. Horrible side effects and no cure, just “live longer…” How much longer? Really no one knows – weeks, months, maybe just days?
Xifaxan – new antibiotic treatment for “IBS-D” (irritable bowel syndrome with diarrhea), another one of the many “diseases” invented by drug companies to increase profits. “If you think you have IBS with diarrhea, talk to your doctor about Xifaxan!”. Again, maybe a simple change in diet is in order. And the latest commercial spots are truly disgusting, with an animated pink wad of intestines, a “GutGuy”, illustrating “IBS”.
Movantic – for “opioid induced constipation”, whatever that is. I am sure there is an epidemic of this new “disease”, called “OIC” in the commercial, that will have individuals and health insurance companies lined up to fill the pockets of its manufacturer.
Neulasta – a drug to reduce infection from chemotherapy – the commercial features a gay couple, or are they sisters, discussing the drug amidst some nice seaside scenery and a great seafood dinner.
Orencia – for rheumatoid arthritis. “Works differently – by targeting the source of symptoms”. Check out those horrible side effects.
Bellsomra – Another dangerous sleeping pill – commercial features animated stuffed fuzzy twisted word animals that are terrifying – seeing this ad will keep me awake not put me to sleep.
Zecuity – “Migraine has met its patch” – yes, a battery powered delivery system for migraine headaches that features a patch on your arm or leg. “When the storm of migraine hits, strike back!”
Toujeo – Commercial features a woman writing in her journal and then navigating a paper world, pursuing a new pen for administration of a drug to control A1C.
Entyvio – for “moderate to severe” ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. “Is it time for a different perspective – relief and remission within reach”.
Seroquel XR – for treatment of depression. Ninety second TV ads tout the treatment for 30 seconds and then spend a full minute describing the horrendous possible side effects. “Say I’m OK”. Really??
Prolia – a drug for “post menopausal osteoporosis”. Actress Blythe Danner doesn’t talk about the dreadful side effects but her “two shots a year” work for her.
Trulicity – “Activate your within”, a pen-type medicine to regulate sugar levels for people having type II diabetes. Jerry the photographer says, “I click to activate what’s within me”.
Viberzi – yet another drug to treat “IBS-D” – Irritable Bowel Syndrome with Diarrhea, featuring a woman with an irritating companion, presumably the “disease” who makes her decisions for her. I can’t believe these commercials!
There is a dreary similarity among all these commercials. They all seem to feature happy, healthy people pursuing pleasurable recreational activities like hiking, biking, fishing, traveling, eating dinner or sitting by the sea, presumably all better now from their “plaque psoriasis”, depression, A-Fib or whatever, while during the latter part of the commercial a serious voice-over intones the dreaded list of serious side-effects, many of which seem considerably worse than the malady itself.
And I am sure you have noticed that most of these heavily marketed and highly profitable drugs do not cure any disease but simply treat and manage symptoms, so that afflicted people essentially take the drug for the rest of their lives rather than take a specific course of a drug to affect a cure. This is certainly part of Big Pharma’s marketing plan – to sell these expensive drugs to you forever.
One of the most egregious sales feats in recent memory is the drug maker Shire quite successfully making “binge-eating” into a “disorder”. Yes, “ Binge Eating Disorder or B.E.D. is not just overeating, it is a real medical disorder”. Retired tennis star Monica Seles, paid well by Shire, was featured in TV commercials and even guest stints on the Today Show and Dr. Oz Show to talk about her problems with binge eating. And of course in the TV and print commercials Ms. Seles recommended “talking to your doctor” about B.E.D., I am sure anticipating being prescribed Vyvanse, one of Shire’s big sellers for ADHD, which was quickly approved as the only drug for B.E.D. immediately prior to the appearances by Seles. Shire expects sales of Vyvanse, already $1.5 billion for ADHD, to increase by $200-300 million as a binge-eating drug. It surely looks like Shire, the FDA and shameless Monica Seles are in B.E.D. together.
It is reasonable to ask about the effect on revenue and profits from all these commercials. Well, the news is bad for us but great for Big Pharma. They all have dramatically increased sales and profits and the money spent on Direct to Consumer advertising continues to rise dramatically, well over $5 billion this past year. A Thomson Reuters poll in 2010 revealed that two-thirds of respondents said they had seen, heard or received prescription drug advertising in the last six months and one-third of respondents say the have talked to their doctor about a drug and received a prescription for it.
Is there any hope for relief from this direct to consumer onslaught of TV and print commercials? The American Medical Association came out against DTC advertising of drugs in 2015, saying that such advertising is responsible for a significant rise in drug costs and has caused doctors to become business negotiators rather than healers. But any changes seem completely unlikely since such advertising has increased Big Pharma’s profits significantly and their lobbyists and campaign contributions will guarantee that the FDA and Congress continue to allow it.
Another glimmer of hope is that Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton announced last fall that she would “demand a stop to excessive profiteering and marketing by denying tax breaks for direct-to-consumer advertising and demanding that drug companies invest in R & D in exchange for taxpayer support”. This proposal comes up far short of what needs to be done but again, even if Clinton were to be elected, it is unlikely that Congress or the FDA will act on even this modest aim. So unfortunately we will have to endure more and more of these dangerous and ridiculous commercials on our television programs and in our print media for the foreseeable future. It looks like New Zealand will not be standing alone in allowing these disgraceful practices for a long long time.