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Healthy Skepticism Library item: 14767

Warning: This library includes all items relevant to health product marketing that we are aware of regardless of quality. Often we do not agree with all or part of the contents.


Publication type: news

Edwards J.
Do Drug Ads Carry Too Many Warnings?
BNET 2008 Dec 9

Full text:

Citing a single example of a woman who stopped taking Pfizer’s Chantix in her efforts to give up smoking, the WSJ published a story today about whether drug advertising is so filled with warnings and disclaimers that consumers may be scared into not taking their drugs.

The piece will be warmly welcomed by the Coalition for Healthcare Communications, a pro-drug-industry lobby group comprised of ad agencies and PR people whose clients are pharmaceutical companies. The idea that warnings in drug advertising are too confusing and overly scary has been their main policy plank for a couple of years now. The WSJ wrote:

Too much information about drug safety – disseminated through media, online alerts from consumer watchdog groups and even by the Food and Drug Administration itself – might overwhelm patients and raise undue alarm, some medical professionals caution. Consumers may forget about the benefits of a medication if they focus only on risk. And the health consequences associated with stopping a medication, particularly for a chronic condition, may be far worse than the possibility of a side effect.

That, in essence, is the line the CHC began pushing in March 2006, when the CHC first launched its attempt to pursuade policy makers that less information woud be more useful to consumers:

The current format of drug ads is “over-warn and under-inform,” said John Kamp, executive director of the Coalition for Healthcare Communication, a Washington-based marketing advocacy group.

He stressed in an interview that his group did want not warnings to be eliminated altogether, rather that patients get the information from sources other than advertising, such as their own doctor.

“The risk disclosures in ads [should] be focused on what consumers need to know. They [should] be fashioned to be understood by consumers.”

“Ads aren’t perfect communication vehicles, ads are awareness- creating vehicles,” Kamp said. “If you try and make them educational you’re going to cram too much into them.”

Kamp is better known as a lawyer at the Wiley Rein firm, where he specializes in First Amendment rights for drug companies. Other CHC members include Tom Lom of Saatchi & Saatchi and founder Peter Frishauf. And, the usual suspect for this type of thing, Peter Pitts, a former FDA official and the director of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest.

The evidence backing the WSJ’s notion that consumers go off their meds because they’re intimidated by confusing warnings is provided by Pfizer(!):

A Pfizer Inc. survey of 300 medical professionals in March found that 89% of respondents were at least somewhat concerned that patients might stop their medications if potentially negative safety information was released to the public too early.

The only other actual human being in the story provides a good argument about why the ad rules should not be changed:

Elona Boykin, 54, of Blacklick, Ohio, has for years been taking six medications for diabetes, high blood pressure and gout. She says the growing amount of drug-safety information available on the Internet and television has made her much more attentive to possible side effects. When she hears something new, she says, she quizzes her doctor with questions like: “What’s your spin on this and should I continue to take it?”

Ms. Boykin says her doctor has been “hounding” her to start a cholesterol-lowering pill, AstraZeneca PLC’s Crestor. She is reluctant: Her brother and sister have experienced side effects from a similar medicine, she says, and she’s heard that Crestor can lead to serious conditions like pancreatitis. Still, she says, if her doctor reassures her at the next visit, she has decided she will start taking the drug.

So, here’s a woman taking her meds, paying attention to the information available, talking to her doctor and, on her own terms, coming to a treatment decision. This is a system working perfectly, isn’t it?

BNET’s take: The notion that drug companies – the sellers of highly technical products that are extremely toxic if used wrongly – should have the same First Amendment rights as that smelly hippy standing on a soapbox in Union Square is an interesting idea for a dinner table discussion. But in terms of consumer safety, more information is better than less. And, to put it at its most cynical, if companies want to avoid being sued in failure-to-warn-type causes of action, then reducing drug ad warnings will not help.


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Far too large a section of the treatment of disease is to-day controlled by the big manufacturing pharmacists, who have enslaved us in a plausible pseudo-science...
The blind faith which some men have in medicines illustrates too often the greatest of all human capacities - the capacity for self deception...
Some one will say, Is this all your science has to tell us? Is this the outcome of decades of good clinical work, of patient study of the disease, of anxious trial in such good faith of so many drugs? Give us back the childlike trust of the fathers in antimony and in the lancet rather than this cold nihilism. Not at all! Let us accept the truth, however unpleasant it may be, and with the death rate staring us in the face, let us not be deceived with vain fancies...
we need a stern, iconoclastic spirit which leads, not to nihilism, but to an active skepticism - not the passive skepticism, born of despair, but the active skepticism born of a knowledge that recognizes its limitations and knows full well that only in this attitude of mind can true progress be made.
- William Osler 1909