George Pennebaker, Pharm.D.
George Pennebaker, Pharm.D.

I HAVE A PET PEEVE. I expect it is one of your peeves as well. Maybe together we can figure out what to do about it.

It concerns the public media. We all see it every day. It is mildly irritating for many and very bothersome for some. My reaction is frustration and higher blood pressure every time I see it.

DRUG ADVERTISING!

You will find it everywhere, every day, in newspapers, magazines, and especially on television.

There are two types of drug ads: those that advertise prescription-only drugs and those for nonprescription drugs and other medical products.

PRESCRIPTION-ONLY DRUGS

Prescription drug ads usually end with happy couples dancing and prancing on the seashore or in sylvan meadows, or holding hands in bathtubs.

The ads claim that the product is some percentage better than its competitors. Often there is statistical “data” that is difficult to fathom. Statistical claims are easy to manipulate unless subjected to rigorous criteria coming from scientific methods.

Our country is famous for the “snake oils” sold from the back of horse-drawn wagons in the 1800s. Some had dangerous stuff in them. All were sold using the advertising techniques of the time — printed flyers and, especially, testimonials. It worked then. It still works now.

Each ad ends with “Ask your doctor about …” Responsible prescribers are faced with a dilemma: Either prescribe the product or try to talk the patient out of it. If it could cause harm to the patient, the prescriber will explain that and not prescribe the requested product. If not harmful, even if it does no good, or is more expensive than alternatives, prescribers will often prescribe it just to keep the patient happy. A happy patient comes back; an unhappy patient does not.

Understand that the United States is the only country that allows the advertising of prescription drugs.

The next time you spend an evening watching TV, count the number of drug ads versus ads for other products. When reading your favorite magazine, count the number of pages devoted to drug ads versus ads for other things. Most print prescription drug ads are three pages, only one of which is read. TV ads have a long list of reasons to not take the product; these reasons are rapidly read while people are dancing on the seashore. If you don’t watch TV much, check out CNN or “60 Minutes.”

Why do we have this problem? Money. Follow the money. Drug companies spend billions of dollars every year on ads. These ads sell the products very well. If they didn’t, billions would not be spent. Media companies obviously like the income. So the perpetrators (manufacturers and media) want to keep it the way it is. They spend another “huge bunch” of dollars making sure it stays the way it is. Any politician who even thinks out loud about the problem would be harming campaign resources ($$).

I once tried to get a newspaper that does investigative reporting to investigate the economics of the drug industry. Boy, was that a dead end.

NONPRESCRIPTION PRODUCTS

Here’s an idea that I have that could make lots of money if the media is used well. The product would be called “No-bleed” for people who have nosebleeds. It would be a very small tube of tinted petroleum jelly. The active ingredient name I would use is “petrolatum” (just different enough to confuse) and the chemical name of the tint chemical. I would do a mass email-Facebook-Twitter search for people who often have nosebleeds. Provide the “bleeders” with a sample and require that they tell me how well it worked. I will acquire a lot of testimonials.

Put those testimonials into an advertising program. Refer people to a website that has a video that extols the product values and testimonials. End the video by telling them how to buy it online for at least $20 a tube (plus shipping and handling).

Then get ready to go to the bank.

I know that sounds silly, but take a close look at some of the ads in magazines and newspapers and on TV. Things as silly as the above example are being promoted. Those ads would not last for long if they were not successful.

Our country is famous for the “snake oils” sold from the back of horse-drawn wagons in the 1800s. Some had dangerous stuff in them. All were sold using the advertising techniques of the time — printed flyers and, especially, testimonials. It worked then. It still works now.

WHAT TO DO?

The first step is education. No one should graduate from high school without knowing how to analyze promotional materials. That includes some basic understanding of statistics as well as how to determine the veracity of written and oral statements.

A most important change would be to require that the adverse effects of the product receive the same emphasis as the positive aspects. Adverse effects need to be just as bold and included in the body of the first page of written materials and the first paragraphs of verbal materials.

However, those two changes are difficult to achieve and have limited impact. More effective actions are needed. Do you have any ideas? I would like to see them. No matter how silly or impractical they may seem, please share them with me. Perhaps we can get something going that is beneficial to our country’s people. CT

George Pennebaker, Pharm.D., is a consultant and past president of the California Pharmacists Association. The author can be reached at george.pennebaker@sbcglobal.net; 916.501.6541; and PO Box 25, Esparto, CA 95627.

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