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Second Opinion

  • July 2, 2001, 12:00 AM EDT
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It probably hasn't been too long since you watched a slick commercial hawking the benefits of a prescription drug. Consumers have been treated to a steady diet of these ads since the Food and Drug Administration relaxed its rules in 1997.

Meanwhile, the growing cost of such medicines has many people—particular senior citizens—bitterly complaining to any politician who's willing to listen.

After seemingly pondering the matter for about as long as it takes a Claritin commercial to race across the screen, some lawmakers have concluded that the ads are what's driving up the price of healthcare.

That's quite a leap. The price of drugs has risen mainly because more people are taking them to prevent costlier health problems like heart attacks and strokes.

Other criticisms of direct-to-consumer prescription-drug ads include charges that they deceive consumers, needlessly increase the number of prescriptions and prompt unnecessary trips to the doctor's office.

"The advertising has an effect on the high cost of drugs," Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., insisted at a recent House health subcommittee hearing on the issue. (The Senate is expected to hold its own hearing soon.)

It sounds like Capps has been listening to the insurance industry, which considers the ads a threat to Americans' health in general. "[Our] members are concerned that risk information in particular is not adequately or effectively conveyed," testified John Golenski, executive director of a coalition that includes Kaiser Permanente and the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association.

If lawmakers decide to act, they could order the FDA to revert to the stricter rules in place before 1997. Or they could insist on the American Medical Association's suggestion that ads carry a disclaimer saying a doctor may suggest other treatments.

Pharmaceutical companies often don't help their own cause. The FDA requires those advertising a drug by name for a specific medical condition to list "major" side effects in TV spots. When Abbott Laboratories airs an ad for the weight-loss drug Meridia, for example, we learn it can cause "headache and constipation."

But some companies cheat. In February, Roche Group avoided listing side effects for weight-loss drug Xenical by airing two shorter spots nearly back to back. Neither mentioned such risks as "gas with oily discharge, increased bowel movements, an urgent need to have them and an inability to control them."

No wonder. Still, Congress and the FDA should have no patience for this kind of deception.

But the real issue is the bottom line. Insurance companies don't want to pay more for drugs. And after watching ad spending on direct-to-consumer drugs grow from $579 million in 1996 to about $2.6 billion last year, they point the finger at the ads.

Stifling the pharmaceutical industry's right to advertise is no way to solve the problem. Censorship never is. Instead, consumers should be given the information and allowed to draw their own conclusions. Regulators should step in only when the drug companies try to flout the rules.

Let consumers and doctors decide whether it's Prilosec time.