Prescription Drug Ads: Too Much Information?

Delta Winds cover 2004Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College


Prescription Drug Ads: Too Much Information?

Bryan Tortolani

"There's a tumor in the T. V. mouth; burn it out before it grows." Although this astute observation came from a dubious source (Marilyn Manson, Little Horn), when applied to the barrage of pharmaceutical advertising on television that has been steadily increasing, it is very apropos to the damage being done by the "helpful" ads. The advertisements for prescription drugs, promising cures for impotence, crippling arthritis, lowering high cholesterol levels, and depression (just to name a few), often make overstated claims of effectiveness, while understating the importance of preventative health care. As a result people are less likely to take responsibility for their wellness and more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors on the assumption that a "pill" or instant cure will solve all their future problems. Prescription drug companies have been aggressively targeting the general public with their advertisements rather than the physicians. The physician is the one that writes the prescription, yet it is the patient that has been conditioned to request and, in many cases, demand a particular medicine from his doctor. These ads, which appeal to the emotions of people who are suffering from medical conditions or just the everyday stress of life, are very effective and very dangerous to the health of many Americans.

Children and parents are especially vulnerable to the manipulative appeal of these advertisements. Pharmaceutical companies are selling the American dream by offering the newest and latest "cure all" products. Many pharmaceutical companies are preying on the competitive nature and fears of parents in regards to their children's chances for succeeding in school. Drugs like Adderall, Concerta, and Ritalin are used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a brain disorder characterized by inattention and impulsive behavior. These drugs are being prescribed at an alarming rate. In a recent episode on PBS's "Now," the commentator, Bill Moyers, reported on a recent government study that suggested approximately four million school-aged children suffer from ADHD, yet about 20 million prescriptions are written each year for stimulant drugs. And the number keeps going up. If these studies are correct 16 million children are receiving a drug they do not need for a disorder they do not have.

Prescription drug ads on television offer pills for every illness. As a result, more prescriptions are being prescribed than ever before. This is because more and more print and television ads are selling the drugs directly to the public. One example is a television advertisement in which the announcer's statement that "acid reflux disease can really upset your plans" is followed by a tired and haggard looking man moaning, "All I want are nights with less pain." These ads also contain very healthy looking people smiling and having a great time. There's a clue to indicate that the viewers can be like the happy people on the screen if they only take the medicine. Such ads place a lot of pressure on the patients to march right down to their doctors' offices and demand the medications. "Go-ahead. Ask your doctor about Altace" and "Ask your doctor if Zocor could work for you" are examples of the pressure pharmaceutical companies are placing on the general public to request medication from their doctors. Another example involves medication for arthritis. This particular ad combines effectual claims like "power 24-hour relief" with images of healthy people. Ads like this one are giving many people false hopes because the medications may not be right for them and not all drugs can deliver on the promises for "instant relief."

Before the FDA released advertising restrictions for drug companies, the doctor's office was the primary vehicle through which the public learned about new types of drugs. Since then a trend of self-diagnosis has developed, leading to a spike in over-prescribed medications as well as an over-reliance on instant gratification. People will be less likely to take care of themselves if they believe that a medication will reverse any damage that their bad health habits may cause. For example, Lipitor (PH) and Zocor (PH) promise to lower cholesterol, which negates that concern for healthy dietary intake. This particular ad promises to make people healthier. Although such a claim is absurd, many people believe it to be true, and as a result people are racing to their doctors requesting Lipitor rather than addressing the dietary habit that caused the problem in the first place.

Doctors are under similar pressures because the pharmaceutical representatives come directly to their offices. Direct marketing can be hard to resist, especially after a semi-personal relationship has been established. Pharmaceutical representatives often provide special perks to doctors who prescribe their medications. Current news stories report that many doctors are supplying the requested medications to their patients, even when they know the drugs may not provide relief. In cases where doctors stand firm and refuse to prescribe requested drugs, many patients travel to Mexico and Canada where the drugs are available without prescription. This unfortunate scenario is causing many people to take medications that may produce terrible side effects when mixed with certain medical conditions or with other medications.

This type of advertising preys on the emotions of people who are disabled by chronic medical conditions and causes "healthy" people to become alarmed about certain "symptoms." For example, the advertisement for Zoloft shows an animated blob pouncing along while an announcer declares, "People suffering from depression, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or in posttraumatic stress disorder may have an imbalance of serotonin so the nerve cells cannot communicate properly." The advertisement uses a simple animation to explain how this imbalance can be corrected. The ad states, "This blocking action by Zoloft helps build up more serotonin between the brain cells, which in turn may help message transmission return to normal." Advertisements like this are obviously directed to the general public in an effort to encourage patients to diagnose themselves. This ad promises false hope to those who are seriously depressed by over-simplifying a complicated disease while causing healthy individuals who are experiencing everyday sadness or have introverted personality traits to believe that they have a disease and are in need of medication. Hundreds of thousands of people may feel overwhelmingly sad at times, or suffer from lack of sleep, or feel fatigued (all symptoms described on the many depression medications), but does this necessarily mean that they need to take medication for depression? There are frequently simple solutions to handling "mental" and "emotional" problems, especially since many times the problems are due to diet, life style, or undetected physical conditions.

The success that the drug companies are realizing by advertising on television is not only a direct result of the fact that they are now allowed to reach the masses with their powerful promises but a society that has been seduced by instant gratification. Most everything in our society is centered on on an instant fix. In the modern world of a technology-based society, the public is ripe for the outrageous promises of drug companies.

Despite the alarm being sounded by concerned members of the medical profession about the claims that these new "wonder drugs" are making, we will not likely see a decrease in advertisements by prescription drug companies any time soon. As a result, people must exercise caution regarding prescription ads and must be aware of the risks involved in taking medications that are unnecessary (e.g. anti-depressants), that have dangerous side effects for people with certain medical conditions, and that may not mix with other medications. Patients must carefully look into any new drug that promises to relieve chronic conditions. Even if doctors respond to requests and prescribe new medications advertised on television, it is a good idea to consult a pharmacist about any adverse side effects and about the drug's interaction with other medications. The power of good judgment, in terms of our health, is now in the hands of the individual viewers and those who care for them.