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Drugged by Drug Companies

Nothing is more revealing of the commercial crassness and insanity of American society than the bombardment of consumers by commercials and advertisements for prescription drugs. Few people may remember that for a very long time there were no such pitches for prescription drugs and people relied on their physicians to select the correct drugs for treatment. What happened to change this?

Drug companies discovered that they could use advertising to make consumers ask for specific drugs. In fact, they discovered that even if they spent millions of dollars on such advertisements they could still greatly increase their sales and profits. In 2008, pharmaceutical manufacturers spent about $4.8 billion on direct-to-consumer television, radio, magazine and newspaper advertising, according to Nielsen Media Research. More is spent on marketing to physicians. Of the $235 billion spent last year on prescription drugs in the , an estimated $8 billion could be a result of drug ads, according to an estimate by a pharmaceutical industry executive.

Interestingly, the is one of only two countries that permit direct-to-consumer drug advertisements. The other is New Zealand, where several years ago some health officials and politicians tried but failed to ban drug ads.

Obviously, doctors do capitulate to the desires of their patients. Another strong motivation for drug companies was that such advertising could make some drugs much more competitive, even when one drug seemed to have a grip on the market. This is why there are so many commercials pushing drugs for male erection problems, both for Viagra and its competitors. And when much cheaper generic drugs are available to consumers the drug companies use advertising to push their much more expensive brand name drugs. For example, the drug to treat urinary problems from enlarged prostates Flomax has a cheap generic alternative: doxazosin. And all the advertising you see for the cholesterol lowering drug Lipitor and some other brand names is used because of very cheap generic drugs being available.

Often it also seems that drug companies know that only by advertising direct to consumers will there be pressure on doctors to prescribe drugs for relatively obscure and often minor ailments for which no drugs might normally be prescribed.

With all the talk about health care reform and the incredible need to reduce national spending, there is some interest in Congress to enact a law to curb TV commercials for prescription drugs. Representative James P. Moran, Democrat of Virginia, is sponsoring a House bill that would ban ads for prescription sexual aids like Viagra and Levitra from prime-time television, on decency grounds.

Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, would like to empower the Food and Drug Administration to bar consumer advertisements for new drugs for an initial period after the F.D.A. approves them. The logic is that there should be more real-world clinical experience with the medications before they are pushed directly on consumers.

Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, has introduced a bill called the Say No to Drug Ads Act. He has the terrific idea of amending the federal tax code to prevent pharmaceutical companies from deducting the cost of direct-to-consumer drug advertisements as a business expense. After all, if you think for a minute you will realize that the huge amounts of money spend on direct to consumer advertising just adds to the cost of prescription drugs. Nadler says "You should not be going to a doctor saying, I have restless leg syndrome' - whatever the hell that is - or going to a doctor saying, I have the mumps,' You should not be diagnosed by some pitchman on TV who doesn't know you whatsoever."

Nadler also made this good point: "On First Amendment grounds, I am not going to say we will ban drug advertising. But they should not be able to get taxpayers to subsidize it."

Representative Daniel Lipinski, Democrat of Illinois, is pushing his own bill that would end the tax deduction for drug company spending on advertisements.

Not surprisingly, over the years there have been many cases of drug companies being nailed for using advertisements with incorrect and misleading information.

The smartest reaction to any advertisement for a prescription drug is this: "If I use this I am spending way too much money on it." If you are using a heavily advertised drug, you should ask your doctor about a cheap generic alternative. And support legislation that could curb all this propaganda masquerading as information.

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Joel S. Hirschhorn has succeeded as: a full professor, University of Wisconsin, Madison; a senior staffer, U.S. Congress (Office of Technology Assessment); head of an environmental consulting company; Director of Environment, Energy and Natural Resources, National Governors Association; now an author and consultant. Recent books are: Sprawl Kills - How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health and Money, and Delusional Democracy - Fixing the Republic Without Overthrowing the Government. He has published hundreds of articles in newspapers, magazines, journals and on many web magazine sites. He has given hundreds of talks at a wide range of conferences worldwide. He focuses on American culture, politics and government, and health issues.