One thing that always frightens me when I turn on the TV is the sheer volume of commercials for prescription drugs. The commercials are usually highly-polished, with nice-looking actors and gentle piano music in the background. They’re so common that you can probably think of a few right now: Cymbalta, Advair, Ambien, Latisse. Although it’s certainly bothersome that drug companies market drugs to people who cannot purchase them directly (without a prescription), the thing that bothers me most is that they used highly polished adds to gloss-over some very serious side effects. This just seems so dangerous. Should we allow drug companies to market powerful prescription drugs to the masses?
One example is Advair, an inhaler used to treat asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The commercials for Advair have everything you might expect: good lighting, nice people, soothing music. A woman who says she suffers from COPD talks about her switch to Advair, and then she is shown outside at a party, frolicking with her grandchildren. While all the good stuff is going on, you hear a voiceover that discusses the risks of Advair, while a list of caveats is displayed at the bottom of the screen: Adviar works differently, It is not known how inflammatories work on COPD. It’s probably harmless, right? After all, they are just providing people with COPD a means to end their suffering and get back to life as usual.
But then go to Advair’s website. As a general rule, the websites for band-name drugs are a lot less polished than their commercials. There, they outline the caveats and warnings in black-and-white detail. But who wants to read something that looks like it came from a doctor’s office? But you should, because the details are often frightening; they make you wonder whether the drug is useful at all (the bold highlighting is mine):
People with asthma who take long-acting beta2-adrenergic agonist (LABA) medicines, such as salmeterol (one of the medicines in ADVAIR), have an increased risk of death from asthma problems. It is not known whether fluticasone propionate, the other medicine in ADVAIR, reduces the risk of death from asthma problems seen with salmeterol.
And Advair’s not the only one. There’s a host of prescription drugs that are marketed in this way. And what confuses me is why market to consumers anyway? Would you ever take a day off work to schedule a doctor’s appointment just to ask about some brand-name drug? And are regular folks like us the best to decide which drug to take, especially when we’re too distracted by dandelions to appreciate all the risks? Drugs are serious business (in every sense of the word), and a pretty package doesn’t make it any less dangerous. Like marketing sugary foods to children using their favorite cartoon characters, I’m not sure we should market powerful prescription drugs to consumers either. We can’t appreciate all the risks. But then there’s always the caveat: ask your doctor if it’s right for you.
I wonder whether people who come in to request brand-name drugs are a common nuisance for physicians.