Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Ethics Behind Drug Ads

By: Jenny Walters

Everyday, as we watch television, whether it is the home and garden or sports channel, we cannot help but be confronted with an infinite number of drug ads. In a recent article published in Time magazine entitled “Do Consumers Understand Drug Ads,” the author, Kate Pickert, discussed how the consumer perceives drug ads.

According to Pickert, drug makers spend nearly $5 billion a year on drugs ads; with every $1000 spent resulting in 24 new prescriptions.[1] From the Nasonex bee to the Lunesta butterfly, you cannot turn on the television without viewing a drug ad. However, this May 2008, during a House Commerce Committee meeting, lawmakers focused on “deceptive” drug ads produced by pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer and Merck, and argued the need for tougher regulations.1 In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which mandates and monitors the content of drug ads, met earlier last week to discuss the topic of the content of drug ads in detail.1

Pickert stated the aim of many drug ads is to: “leave you confused about the information.” According to the FDA, drug ads must present a “fair balance” of the benefits and risks of a drug. However, this “fair balance” is rarely seen; as pharmaceutical companies create drug ads to sell a product, not warn consumers of the risks of a product. Therefore, the risks and side effects portion of a drug ad is usually fast, complicated, and masked by visuals effects that distract the consumer from what is being said.1 In fact, many consumers find the risks and side effects portion of drug ads comical at times. A recent Saturday Night Live episode even poked fun at the drug ads style of the presenting risks and side effects in their skit about Annuale, a made up birth control pill.1

As public scrutiny grows, pharmaceutical companies continue with their marketing ventures and are now turning to medical device ads.1 In Nov 2007, Johnson & Johnson launched a new television ad for Cypher, “a drug-coated coronary stent, designed to prop open narrowed arteries.”1 Ads, such as the Cypher ad, target millions of consumers who lack the medical knowledge to make a decision on whether they require such a device.1 According to Pickert, the Cypher ad creates questions regarding the “social benefits of medical advertising.”

From my perspective, a nurse, a mother, a pharmaceutical employee, and a consumer, I can see all sides of the drug ad dispute. Drug ads can be helpful to consumers, as they do provide them with information they may have otherwise not been aware of. However, the confusion created and the blatant disguising of side effects of a drug, is of great concern for me. Although at times the drug ads may be comical, ultimately they show the need for pharmaceutical companies to promote their products, make money, and put the patient safety last. As stated above, the pharmaceutical companies are trying to sell products, not warn of the risks and side effects of the products.

[1] Pickert K. Do consumers understand drug ads? Time [serial online]. May 2008. Available at:,8816,1806946,00.html. Accessed on May 18, 2008.

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