The Trouble with Direct-to-Consumer Advertising

By OBOS Navigating Health Care Contributors | October 1, 2011
Last Revised on Jul 8, 2014

My doctor told me I was at high risk of invasive breast cancer. I told him I wanted to reduce that risk.
—Ad for an osteoporosis drug

The only birth control proven to treat premenstrual dysphoric disorder.
—Ad for YAZ

I’m proud of him because be asked about Viagra .​ . . I​ love him because he did it for us.
—Ad for Viagra

Ads for prescription and over-the-counter drugs are everywhere—on the Internet and on TV, on billboards and in magazines. Some of these ads promise not only to solve our medical problems but to bring us happiness, contentment, and the good life.

Other ads appeal to our fears about our health. Their underlying message is this: You appear to be healthy, but a deadly heart attack, a hip fracture, or some other medical catastrophe could occur at any time. Therefore, you should take a prescription drug to prevent such problems.

Drug companies claim that direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising is good because the ads educate the public and encourage people to be more involved in their medical choices. But drug companies have a serious conflict of interest when it comes to educating the public: They have a vested interest in convincing people to take their drugs. The more people use their products, the larger the drug companies’ profits. In 2012 the pharmaceutical industry spent over $3 billion advertising drugs directly to consumers.

Ads aimed at healthy people who can be persuaded to take a drug daily for the rest of their lives clearly target the industry’s most desirable customer base. The overselling of postmenopausal hormones, supported by the depiction of natural menopause as a “hormone deficiency disease” that needed “hormone replacement therapy,” was the forerunner to this type of sales pitch, which now permeates the media. Aging, social anxiety disorder, heartburn, restless leg syndrome, and overactive bladder are all examples of symptoms or normal physiological events that are now presented to consumers as being in need of long-term drug treatment.

We need to recognize misleading pharmaceutical marketing practices and base drug treatment decisions on scientifically accurate evidence. Be particularly skeptical of heavily advertised drugs and those that come with coupons or free samples. They are the newest, most expensive drugs with the shortest track records of safety. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require new drugs to be proved better than competing, often cheaper drugs already on the market. In addition, drug trials typically last no more than a few months and long-term safety studies are almost never done, so problems with long-term use may not show up until years after FDA approval.

The FDA’s website offers extensive information about medicines, including safety alerts about the latest recalls and warnings for specific drugs. Be cautious when looking for information on other websites, as many are substantially sponsored by pharmaceutical companies. Being skeptical about drug ads and promotions is smart: it can protect both our health and our wallets.