“Ask your doctor if Lyrica/Viagra/Celebrex is right for you.”
TV commercials for prescription drugs may be routine in the United States, but they’re banned almost everywhere else around the world. Only the US and New Zealand allow them today.
I made the video you see above and uploaded it to YouTube one night. The very next day it had over 10,000 views. I’m guessing it resonated with people: my fellow Americans in particular, some of whom had no idea that these ads aren’t normal everywhere else.
There’s a substantial body of evidence that suggests America’s permissive attitude towards prescription drug advertising may not be so healthy.
With American airwaves awash in these ads, the US has solidified its status as one of the most heavily medicated countries in the world. America comprises just 4% of the world’s population — but we use about 40% of the world’s drug prescriptions.
Between 20 and 30 percent of Americans report having followed those famous commercial instructions: they’ve asked their doctors if specific prescription meds were right for them, after having seen them advertised on TV. One study found that 74% of oncology nurse practitioners had asked about an inappropriate drug (and many had felt “pressured to prescribe”).
These pill pushing ads work, or at least that’s what the marketing managers for Big Pharma have concluded. Their commercial budgets have ballooned ever since the first drug ad was allowed by Reagan’s Food and Drug Administration in 1983. The annual TV budget for the drug industry today stands at about $6 billion. That means that that familiar instruction to ask your doctor can be heard on American TVs about 2,000 times every day. That’s more than once a minute.
Anybody who’s seen one of these prescription commercials can probably guess that using all those scrips can come with some nasty side effects.
For instance, the dulcet narrator in one ad for the sleeping pill Lunesta warns us:
When taking Lunesta, don’t drive or operate machinery until you feel fully awake. Walking, eating, driving, or engaging in other activities while asleep without remembering it the next day have been reported. Abnormal behaviors may include aggressiveness, agitation, hallucinations or confusion.
In depressed patients, worsening of depression including risk of suicide may occur. Alcohol may increase these risks. Allergic reactions such as tongue or throat swelling occur rarely and may be fatal. Side effects may include unpleasant taste, headache, dizziness, and morning drowsiness.
Ask your doctor if Lunesta is right for you… There’s a land of restful sleep. We can help you go there on the wings of Lunesta.
According to a Mayo Clinic study, 70% of Americans take one prescription drug regularly, and one in five Americans take five separate meds simultaneously. Some of these drugs are stacked on top of one another like pancakes, with each one attempting to cancel out the previous one’s unintended side effects.
If you’ve been following the prescription painkiller crisis in America lately, you’ve probably noticed that loose prescribing practices seem to have created the ultimate side effect: dependence on opioid drugs.
It goes like this — imagine a person has a workplace accident and injures their back. They tell their doctor about the pain they’re in and she prescribes them a strong painkiller like Oxycontin. That works great until their supply of pills runs out and they can’t get their scrip refilled. If, like thousands of Americans, they’ve already developed a dependence on the drug, they might start looking for substitute opioids to fill the void. They may start to self-medicate with street drugs from the same family like heroin or counterfeit Fentanyl illegally imported from China.
Becoming more circumspect about prescribing drugs should also lead us to think about engineering lives that are healthier as well.
Here’s what I’m not saying: that nobody should ever take prescription medications.
But we need to become more thoughtful as a society about how quickly we reach for pills to solve our problems when other lifestyle changes could help more sustainably. The promise of lower blood pressure through popping pills may seem like an easy solution but for many patients simple weight loss is a far more durable and cheaper (although harder) way of lowering blood pressure down to healthy levels.
Compare America’s relatively Laissez-faire attitude towards drugs as cure-alls with that of other countries. In the Netherlands for example, only pharmacists are allowed to sell ibuprofen. Maybe we don’t need to go that far in the other direction, but it’s clear that the U.S. is an outlier.
One simple regulatory action that the FDA could unilaterally do without Congress is to stop approving prescription drug ads for broadcast on television and radio.
Sure, that might lead to lawsuits from Big Pharma on “freedom of speech” grounds. But the truth is corporations don’t have a right to do anything they please to make a profit.
The move would have precedent: in the 1970s Congress worked with the Nixon administration to ban television and radio adverts for tobacco products. (You won’t find billboards for Marlboros in 46 states either, as much as they might want them.)
Another option would be for TV networks themselves to stand up, grow a spine, and refuse to air these bizarre ads that are banned almost everywhere else in the world. There is precedent for this too: networks routinely turn down ads with other types of objectionable content. And TV stations enforce their own internal rules that prevent beer commercials from depicting anyone actually sipping alcohol on their airwaves. (Ever noticed how nobody actually drinks beer in those commercials — they just hold their cups up before the camera cuts away?)
America’s addiction to prescriptions wasn’t created overnight and it won’t be fixed overnight. But there’s no reason we can’t take some steps in the right direction. That begins with joining almost every other country in the world and getting rid of these harmful advertisements the same way we got rid of cigarette ads in the 70s. Banning them from the airwaves would be a great step forward.
And don’t just take my word for it. To borrow a phrase… ask your doctor.
How do doctors feel about prescription drug commercials? They’re generally not big fans of them. In fact, the American Medical Association, the largest group of physicians in the USA, has been calling for these ads to be banned for years now.
So, nameless narrator from Pharma commercials: we’ve asked our doctors. They’ve given us advice. It’s time we take it.
As for me, I’ll be back next month with another video essay for you.
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