Tune Out Drug Ads

Tune Out Drug Ads

Julian Whitaker, MD

In the late 1990s, the FDA eased its restrictions to allow pharmaceutical firms to advertise directly to consumers on television and radio, and it’s opened Pandora’s box.

Today we’re bombarded with pitches to “talk to your doctor” about drugs to clear up your allergies, ease your pain, lower your cholesterol, help you lose weight, and relieve just about every other ailment you can think of.

Hawking Drugs

Doctors have always been targeted for drug advertising. Drug companies spend thousands of dollars per physician per year promoting their wares. Armies of drug reps arrive at doctors’ offices to ply physicians with food, office supplies, and free samples. Medical journals often contain more glossy, multi-page drug ads than they do scientific studies, and pharmaceutical firms sponsor cocktail parties, elegant dinners, and educational seminars at vacation resorts, where physicians learn about the latest therapies (i.e., drugs).

Given that this is the source of much of the continuing medical education offered to physicians, it’s little wonder that so many of them turn to the prescription pad as the treatment of choice for virtually every medical problem.

Now pharmaceutical companies are spending more than $4 billion a year on direct-to-consumer advertising—twice as much as they spend on research and development! Some of these ads are quite compelling. Happy, attractive models of all ages, pictured with adorable children, smile from the pages of magazines and your TV screen. Other ads encourage you to “ask you doctor” for a free trial of one drug or another.

The Doctor-Patient Relationship Is Threatened

This is an unsavory situation in a number of ways. Direct-to-consumer advertising has turned the doctor-patient relationship on its head. Prescriptions are required for a reason: These drugs are strong chemical agents with a host of side effects, toxicities, and interactions with other drugs. They are just too dangerous to be used indiscriminately without the supervision of a medical professional who has been trained in their use.

In the past, when you were sick, you went to your doctor, who would examine you, then, based upon his or her experience and expertise, prescribe a therapy (likely a prescription drug) and monitor your progress. Today, patients are approaching their doctors with demands for specific drugs they’ve seen advertised—and doctors are giving them what they want.

Who Is Benefiting Here?

Let’s be reasonable. I’m all for patient education, but drugs are not appropriate products for consumer advertising. Physicians don’t benefit. They are caught in the middle. You have no idea how much pressure is placed on doctors in situations like this to fulfill the demands of their patients. They either write a prescription or risk losing a patient. And whichever way it goes, the physician-patient relationship suffers.

Patients aren’t benefiting either. In fact, they have the most to lose. We already have an enormous problem with overuse of dangerous drugs in this country. More than 2.2 million adverse drug reactions are recorded each year, and 106,000 annual deaths are attributed to the appropriate use of prescription drugs. As we lose the protective shield that the doctor-patient relationship provides against indiscriminate prescribing, things are only getting worse.

Pharmaceutical companies, however, are making out like bandits. Drug sales are at an all-time high, and profits are growing at a pace that turns other industries green with envy. At the same time, direct-to-consumer advertising is creating a demand for the newest and most costly drugs. According to the National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation, a policy group in Washington, DC, 40 percent of the recent increase in drug sales was attributed to just 25 of the most heavily promoted drugs.

Tune Out

Do not underestimate the power of this kind of advertising. It is a siren call sucking you into the pharmaceutical pit. Just tune it out. Better yet, educate yourself on the true benefits and dangers of prescription drugs.


  • Hillman, D et al. The direct-to-consumer advertising dilemma. Patient Care. 2001 Mar 30:22-33.
  • Year Two: a national survey of consumer reactions to direct-to-consumer advertising. Prevention magazine with technical assistance from the FDA. 2001

Modified from Health & Healing with permission from Healthy Directions, LLC. Copyright 2001. Photocopying, reproduction, or quotation strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher. To subscribe to Health & Healingclick here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email