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Drug Ads Do More Good Than Harm, FDA Told

Widespread direct-to-consumer advertising for prescription drugs is having a generally positive effect on the medication-taking public and is not causing significant problems for doctors, a number of researchers testified yesterday before the Food and Drug Administration.

While many physicians report feeling somewhat pressured by their patients to prescribe heavily advertised drugs, few consider it a significant problem. And while many consumers believe the advertisements emphasize benefits more than risks, they also report that the ads often spur them to talk to their doctors for the first time about medical problems.

"Very few people reported that they are going in to their doctor because of an ad for a prescription drug," said Kathryn Aikin of the FDA's division of drug marketing, advertising and communications.

At a two-day conference that began yesterday, the FDA is hearing from a broad range of private and academic researchers about the effects of the $2.7 billion that the pharmaceutical industry now spends annually on television, radio and print advertising. The agency opened the door to wider drug advertising in 1997.

Some critics of the policy have argued that advertising to consumers has played a major role in driving up the nation's fast-rising bill for pharmaceutical drugs, while others have worried that Americans are being persuaded that all of life's problems and complaints can be treated with a pill.

Perhaps most important, however, has been the concern that aggressive advertising campaigns might lead patients to demand new but inappropriate medications and put strains on the doctor-patient relationship. Some of that appears to be happening, with the FDA researchers reporting that 7 percent of general practitioners said they have felt "very pressured" to prescribe heavily advertised drugs and that 6 percent said the advertising has had a very negative effect on their practice.

But the FDA research, as well as studies by academic and private teams, concluded that doctors generally found the advertising to be more beneficial than problematic. In a survey of 500 doctors, the FDA researchers found that 18 percent said drug advertising had created some problems with patients while 41 percent said it had some beneficial effects.

Other researchers reported that drug advertising appears to be having a positive effect on the number of people seeking treatment for depression and high cholesterol, two conditions known to be undertreated.

The quality of the drug advertising research has been questioned by some, who say it relies too much on surveys and self-reporting. The possible problems that can come up were highlighted by researcher Joel Weissman of Massachusetts General Hospital.

His team was told by patients that drug advertising was most likely to cause them to talk to their doctors about allergy, arthritis and cholesterol-lowering drugs. But when doctors were asked what advertising led to the most questions from patients, they said impotence drugs were number one.

Posted on aef.com: September 26, 2003


Marc Kaufman, Washington Post. September 23, 2003

Copyright © 2003 The Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.