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THOMPSON: Ask your doctor if (fill-in-the-blank) might be right for you

April 10, 2017 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


Only two countries in the entire world allow pharmaceutical companies to advertise prescription drugs directly to consumers...New Zealand and the United States. It is not mere coincidence that these two are not among the leading nations when it comes to providing quality healthcare.

Last week, while watching ABC Evening News, I noticed that every commercial promoted a prescription drug. Whether with animation - apparently cartoons seem less threatening - or real humans, each commercial followed a similar format.

Basically, you see one or more people with sad faces. A friendly and sincere on-screen actor talks about how you're missing out on life because of...(choose one) erectile dysfunction, depression, arthritis or various kinds of pain.

Then, invariably, with one or more people now all smiles and a child or grandchild playing in the background, you're advised to "ask your doctor if...(choose one) Cymbalta, Lyrica, Cialis or Abilify...is right for you." Well, I'm sorry, but this approach seems - there's no subtle way to express this - idiotic.

Forget for a moment that the drug companies have a vested interest in this push marketing strategy. And forget that this industry has annual sales exceeding $1 trillion. Forget, too, that the audience for these commercials is comprised largely of people who have a mediocre understanding of science...not to mention medicine.

Just for the record, the U.S. ranked 24th out of 71 countries in science in one cross-national test - the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) - and 19th among 35 tested by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. So, there's evidence aplenty that the American public is capable of being manipulated. Kiwis can take some solace in the fact that New Zealand fared better - 12th in both tests - but still well back from the leaders...Singapore, Estonia and Japan. Canada stands at 7th.

Common sense - you might think - would tell you not to completely trust a company that exists to sell products that enriches shareholders so well. Common sense - again, you might think - would dictate that you listen to your doctor rather than dropping hints your next visit about what might make you healthier.

This scenario is illogical enough so far, but then you hear in each and every commercial about the side effects of the drug being promoted. The Food and Drug administration requires this warning of advertisers...or you can bet it would never be mentioned. Typically, drug side effects - to call them sobering is understatement - consume much of each commercial.

A 75-second commercial for Abilify, for instance, consumes 40 seconds with warnings about side effects. Drug companies - able to advertise since 1977 - were the first commercials longer than 60 seconds, simply to accommodate the time needed for the warnings.

Consider for a moment that the performance of any prescription drug depends on factors like age, gender, allergies, other drugs you might be taking, even vitamins and diet. All of these can dramatically affect side effects of any given drug. Your doctor knows this. You might or might not. Side effects, too, can arise if you decrease or increase drug dosages, start or stop taking a drug or add another medicine to the drug cocktail you might be taking.

Now, the funny part...and I use the term funny in the broadest sense of the word. For example, taking the drug mentioned previously - Abilify - let's consider the side effects and how they're presented in commercials. Abilify, by the way, is a psychotropic drug used to treat schizophrenia, mania, depression, bipolar and autistic disorders, as well as some irritable behaviour issues. However, it is positioned in commercials as a go-to drug for treating depression, especially if your current anti-depressant doesn't make you look as happy as the people in the commercial.

Here's what commercials and ads for Abilify actually say: "Common side effects of Abilify are dizziness, lightheadedness, drowsiness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, stomach upset, tiredness, excess saliva, choking or trouble swallowing, blurred vision, headache, anxiety, weight gain, insomnia and constipation. Suicidal thoughts may occur in some patients, especially children, teens and young adults. Tell your doctor if this occurs. Other serious side effects include tremors, fainting, seizures and signs of infection, such as fever and persistent sore throat."

Really? Why would most people even consider this drug...much less ask their doctor if it's right for them? Unless you suffer from serious depression, the cure might be worse than the disorder.

So, how do these commercials work...why do people "ask their doctors if (fill in the blank) is right for them?"

I worked for two large corporations and headed a successful advertising and public relations firm for years, introducing more than 200 products to consumers and businesses. While I never worked for a pharmaceutical firm or had one as a client, the communications techniques still apply. And, the drug advertisers use them with precision.

If you listen to drug commercials, you'll find the parts about side effects are written more formally, with more complex sentence structure, which makes comprehension more difficult. When side effects come up, the voice shifts off-camera and is more hurried, so you don't remember it as well as the part about the benefits. The verbal warnings aren't nearly as effective as the smiling, happy people enjoying life. All they had to do was ask their doctors if it was right for them!

Some say pharmaceutical companies are healthcare's mob...making huge amounts of money, unduly influencing politicians and causing unhealthy side effects. I wouldn't go that far, necessarily, but you have to ask yourself, why are these commercials allowed? Do they benefit consumers? Not so much.

I don't know why America doesn't follow Canada's lead on healthcare issues. What we do here works...not perfectly...but compared to our neighbours to the south, we're healthier. And no one here is denied healthcare. Public good rather than private greed should drive healthcare solutions. We're fortunate that's the case in Canada.

– Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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