Direct to Consumer Pharma Ads: Should the FDA Shorten Warnings?

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The FDA announced late last week that it was considering shortening disclaimers during direct to consumer pharma ads on TV. The agency claims the lengthy list of complications many drugs are required to disclose either tunes out or overwhelms viewers.

Research will be conducted over the next few months to determine if shortening the ads will improve the message to potential patients. According to an FDA document, the lesser side effects could be noted using the disclaimer “potential additional risks.”

According to research from Pew Charitable Trusts, the pharmaceutical industry spent $3.1 billion on television advertising in 2012. By reducing the list of side effects, Pharma could potentially save tens or hundreds of millions with shorter commercials.

We asked our doctors what they thought in a Sermo Physician Flash Poll and got a spirited debate with a few hundred doctors weighing in with their opinion via vote or comment.

Fifty-nine percent of physicians believe the ads should stay as they are with full disclosure by the pharmaceutical company. In the words of one Sermo doctor,

“Absolutely not!!! If pharmaceutical companies can advertise to the public, they should be expected to educate the public about the side effects of the medications they are advertising. The concept of ‘full disclosure’ and ‘transparency’ should apply to everyone and not just doctors.”

Forty-one percent of voters thought the shortened ads wouldn’t make much difference or give physicians the opportunity to educate their patients with what prescription (if any) would work best for their ailments. As another doctor put it,

“Rather than wasting everyone’s time and money going over a lengthy list of potential adverse reactions that may or may not be relevant to an individual case, how about just a general mention about ‘medications may have significant adverse risks and these should be discussed with your doctor or health care provider in considering these medications’.”

Although not asked specifically, several doctors spoke up about banning prescription pharmaceutical advertising altogether.

“All advertising for prescription medications should be banned. Only OTC meds should be permitted to be advertised. After all, if the patient can not directly obtain the medication without a consultation with a physician, what’s the point of advertising to the patient directly?”

One doctor noted via a Wikipedia page that most Westernized countries have banned advertising since about the 1940s with the exception of New Zealand, a country of about four million people, and the United States. He went on to cite a World Health Organization document which states:

“Direct-to-consumer advertising of drugs has been legal in the USA since 1985, but only really took off in 1997 when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) eased up on a rule obliging companies to offer a detailed list of side-effects in their infomercials (long format television commercials). Since then the industry has poured money into this form of promotion, spending just under US$5 billion last year alone.”

What do you think? Should pharmaceutical companies be allowed to shorten disclaimers in the interest of helping the patient/consumer? Or should prescription medication advertising be banned altogether like it is most other industrialized countries? If you are an M.D. or D.O., we are having a lively debate inside Sermo and would welcome your opinion in either the comments below or inside our physician community.