Intended for healthcare professionals

Longer version

Medical professors speak out against advertising directly to consumers

New York

Jeanne Lenzer

The drug industry’s "onslaught of advertising to promote prescription drugs . . . does not promote public health" and "increases costs and unnecessary prescriptions," more than 200 US medical school professors said last week. In the United States the industry spends $4bn (£2.3bn; €3.3bn) a year on direct to consumer advertising.

The professors signed a petition organised by Commercial Alert, an Oregon based non-profit organisation that seeks to "protect communities from commercialism." The petition was sent to the US Food and Drug Administration in response to a call for public comments before an FDA advisory committee’s hearing on direct to consumer advertising held earlier this week.

The professors say in the petition: "Prescription drug advertising pressures health professionals to prescribe particular medications, and often the ones that may be less effective and more expensive and dangerous. This intrudes on the relationship between medical professionals and patients, and disrupts the therapeutic process."

That, say the signatories, wastes valuable time as doctors are forced to "explain to patients why they may have been misled by the drug advertisements they have seen."

The doctors dismiss the idea that direct to consumer advertising is "educational," saying: "It [such advertising] is inherently misleading because it features emotive imagery and omits crucial information about drugs." This, they say, is the result of an "inherent and irredeemable financial conflict-of-interest" of the drug companies, which drives them to "exaggerate the positive and minimize the negative qualities of their own products."

Jeff Trewhitt, a spokesman for Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, disagreed. "The data show a different story," he said, adding that direct to consumer advertising "is educational at a time when there is significant under-diagnosis and undertreatment of diseases that affect millions of Americans."

Mr Trewhitt said that a study by the US health think tank Rand Health published in the New England Journal of Medicine "found that nearly half of all adults in the United States fail to receive recommended health care." He said, "Medications were underused in seven conditions, including asthma, congestive heart failure, diabetes, cerebrovascular disease, hyperlipidaemia, and hypertension."

Asked whether these problems weren’t the result of a failed public health system rather than of drug advertising, Mr Trewhitt said, "There are six million to seven million Americans walking around with diabetes who have not been diagnosed." Citing a Harvard University study, Mr Trewhitt said, "One quarter of patients who visited their physicians after seeing an ad came away with a diagnosis of a new medical condition."

Gary Ruskin, spokesman for Commercial Alert, said he believed it was possible that the FDA advisory committee might recommend a ban on direct to consumer advertising. "There are some very powerful critics of [advertising]," he said. "The political climate is definitely shifting away from the drug companies."