Brian Maranan Pineda
As a nation, we have mixed feelings about the proliferation of drug ads. In a 2005 survey, more than half of American consumers said they believe that such advertising should be more strictly regulated. And almost 80 percent of doctors believe that drug commercials encourage patients to ask for medicines they don't need. Yet in a 2005 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, two thirds of consumers surveyed said that drug ads provide useful information at least some of the time. And in cases like Johnson's, seeing a drug commercial may be the first time a person learns that a health problem he or she is having has a name and a treatment. "[These ads] can motivate patients to seek out information from health-care providers to talk about a disease, and can destigmatize conditions people might be embarrassed about," says Rebecca Burkholder, director of health policy at the National Consumers League, a nonprofit consumer-advocacy group. "On the other hand, we're concerned about whether they provide risk information in a balanced way."
Lawmakers are responding to those concerns: Last fall - in reaction to the 2004 recall of Vioxx, a pain reliever that was shown to have links to heart attacks (risks that hadn't shown up in clinical trials before the drug was approved) - Congress passed new legislation with the goal of further protecting consumers. The FDA can now impose fines on ads it deems misleading. This year, the agency will also get an extra $6.2 million (in fees from pharmaceutical companies) to hire 27 more staffers to review all TV ads before they are aired; as of a year ago, there were only five staffers reviewing ads.
These changes will help consumers feel more certain that we know what we're being sold as far as medical claims go. But in the end, it's up to you and your doctor to discuss the fine points of your treatment. To help you with that goal, here's a closer look at what pharmaceutical ads do and don't tell you, and how to educate yourself so you can be confident about both the drugs and the care that you are getting.