Abuse, Inflated Prices Spur MD Vote to Kill Ads

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Pam Linn

Are you as tired as I am of commercials promoting prescription drugs on TV? Well, apparently so are doctors, according to a recent news item courtesy of Bloomberg News.

Doctors attending the annual American Medical Association (AMA) convention, which took place last week in Atlanta, voted to end TV advertising and magazine spreads that pitch prescription drugs. The organization reversed its previous position approving such ads as long as they were accurate and educational. The U.S. is one of the few countries that allows direct to consumer drug ads. 

The doctors cited concerns that such commercially driven promotions “inflate demand for new and more expensive drugs, even when these drugs may not be appropriate.”

In a study published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found that prescription drug use among people aged 20 and older had risen to 59 percent in 2012, the last year for which data was available. During the first dozen years of this century, the percentage of people regularly taking five or more prescription drugs nearly doubled from eight percent to 15 percent.

A similar study published two years ago by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed approximately the same numbers, citing the increase in drug marketing directly to consumers as one of the reasons for the rise. It also noted that the increased role of prescription drugs in U.S. healthcare contributed to the ongoing overuse and abuse of painkillers, which kill an estimated 16,000 Americans each year. Opioid overuse also has been shown to increase the abuse of heroin and other addictive drugs.

Antibiotics was one of only two classes of drugs that showed a decrease in use during 2012 along with sex hormones among women, which decreased from 19 percent to 11 percent, possibly driven by a decline in hormone treatment for menopause.

The CDC study also mentioned the over-prescribing of antibiotics, which has led to growth in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, as noted in Brady Dennis’ Washington Post story from Nov. 3.

The FDA and USDA are aware of the troubling fact that 80 percent of antibiotics used in this country are fed to livestock to promote growth and prevent illness caused by unsanitary conditions and overcrowding. However, both agencies stopped short of banning antibiotic misuse, calling for voluntary compliance in using the drugs only to treat illness with veterinary approval.

It is not yet known whether President Obama’s nominee to lead the FDA, Dr. Robert Califf, (currently No. 2 at the agency) would work to lower drug prices. Given his ties to the pharmaceutical industry, his nomination has been opposed by some Democrats, including presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. It was also not brought up in Senate hearings last week whether Califf would support the AMA decision to oppose commercial advertising of prescription drugs.

One would think that without the huge amounts of money pharmaceutical companies now spend on advertising, they could lower prices considerably.

So, how much is the drug industry actually advertising on TV? Surely, I missed a few, but the following ads appeared in the course of three days on CBS: 

Harvoni to treat hepatitis C; Enbrel, Humira and Orencia to treat rheumatoid arthritis; Jardiance, Trulicity, NovoLog, Victoza, Invokana, Tanzeum and Toujeo to lower blood sugar or treat diabetes; Eliquis to thin blood; Namzaric to slow progression of Alzheimer’s; Premarin to help ease symptoms of menopause; Opdivo for immunotherapy/cancer; Restasis for chronic dry eyes; Colace and OIC to treat opioid-induced constipation; Prolia to increase bone density; Zocor and other statins to lower cholesterol. Myrbetriq for overactive bladder; and Symbicort for asthma and COPD.

The prize for tacky scenarios would have to go to Viagra and Cialis, for erectile dysfunction: “So you can be ready when the time is right.” And, for sheer nonsense, the trophy goes to Jublia, which treats toenail fungus. Seriously?

Many of these drugs replace earlier ones but offer small improvements. For instance, the cancer treatment Opdivo has lengthened the lives of lung cancer patients on average by a scant three months.

At the end of every ad is a long list of possible side effects, some of which include vomiting, diarrhea, organ failure and even death. “So ask your doctor if (whatever drug) is right for you.” Maybe doctors voted against advertising because they waste time explaining why a certain drug isn’t right.

If the list of side effects includes many more serious than the condition the drug was meant to treat, then why spend megabucks for a tradeoff?

Without the ads, maybe we can let up on the mute button.