Forbes ran an interesting piece last month on the fine line in Big Pharma between promoting a new drug and presenting a misleading picture of its risk and benefits. In fact, the American Food & Drug Administration regularly singles out drug companies that use questionable language to imply or suggest their drug is superior to similar treatments, and watches closely for the omission of dangerous risk and side effect information. Forbes recently ran an online slide show of the 10 most misleading drug ads that have been slapped with FDA warning letters.
For example, actress Brooke Shields is a professional celebrity-for-hire (Volkswagen-Ford-Coppertone-LaZBoy-Colgate-Tupperware) and also spokeswoman for Latisse, a prescription eyelash thickening agent. Yes, there is such a thing. In September 2009, the FDA went after Latisse’s maker, Allergan, for a website that downplayed the drug’s serious risks which include cornea infections, hair growth outside of the treatment area, and permanent darkening of eye color.*
Cleveland Clinic cardiologist Dr. Steven Nissen, who is a fierce critic of drug ads, observed:
“It’s almost impossible for the public to actually parse the ads and come to their own independent conclusions.”
But Dr. Nissen is suspicious of most drugs that are advertised because he thinks that the marketing campaigns distract and mislead consumers. His advice: avoid the most heavily advertised drugs and stick to generics.
Watch the Forbes slide show of 10 misleading drug ads from Cymbalta to Treximet, including the FDA warning letters.
And by the way, here in Canada, Direct To Consumer (“Ask Your Doctor!’) advertising like the Latisse ad is illegal. But in 2000, Canada changed its policy to allow ‘reminder ads’ for prescription drugs – thus becoming the only country on earth that prohibits Direct To Consumer ads, yet makes an exception for branded reminder advertising. This is a form of advertising that states the brand name of the drug without any health care claims (like the famous Viagra ads you’ve probably seen on TV). Reminder ads are prohibited in all other developed countries that ban Direct To Consumer ads.
A 2009 study** from the University of British Columbia led by Dr. Barbara Mintzes concluded:
“This review of 12 years of drug advertising spending in Canada is a sobering reality check. Many of the most heavily advertised products have been subject to regulatory warnings of serious risks. If public health is to be taken seriously, Canada’s government needs to take action to stop reminder advertising.
“It makes no sense to send out safety advisories telling physicians to prescribe a drug cautiously because of serious risks and then, using a regulatory loophole created to foster price competition, to turn a blind eye to persuasive advertisements that make the same drug look like an effortless key to happiness and good health. The suggestion to ‘ask your doctor’ is no guarantee that the viewer is protected, as doctors often prescribe medicines that patients request.”
* Watch this Funny or Die spoof of the Latisse ads.
** Mintzes B, Morgan S, Wright JM (2009) Twelve Years’ Experience with Direct-to-Consumer Advertising of Prescription Drugs in Canada: A Cautionary Tale. PLoS ONE 4(5): e5699. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005699
See also: Paying celebrities to shill your drugs
What a great article Carolyn! You really answered a lot of my own questions about drugs advertising, both in Canada and the US. I will definitely keep this article in the back of my mind for my interviews!
Thanks, Sara – good luck with those med school interviews. You can wow them with your newfound knowledge of pharmaceutical ads! 🙂
Thanks for sharing these ads with us. Drug companies never cease to amaze me with their creativity. If only they used their power for good rather than evil . . .