Drug companies flood airwaves with ads

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It wasn’t too long ago when the list of medicines available to treat our ailments included things like aspirin, Vick’s Vapo-Rub, cough syrup, mercurochrome, Alka-Seltzer and Pepto Bismol.

That was about all we needed, and with these, we didn’t have to worry about dangers of potential side effects from using them.

We’ll get back to side effects.

Then, along came television with ads pushing drugs claiming to be remedies or medical cures for everything.

Even if you only watch TV occasionally, you will likely see commercials for drugs designed to treat or prevent problems like erectile dysfunction, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, stroke, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and many more, some serious and some not.

I did some research and was amazed at my findings.

Direct-to-consumer refers to the marketing of pharmaceutical products via TV directed toward patients rather than health care professionals.

The practice is big and getting bigger.

According to Kantar Media, a firm that tracks multimedia advertising, 771,368 such TV ads were shown in 2016, the last full year for which data is available, an increase of almost 65 percent over 2012 as shown in an article that appeared in USA Today on March 16, 2017.

“TV ad spending by pharmaceutical companies has more than doubled in the past four years, making it the second-fastest-growing category on television during that time,” said Kantar’s chief research officer Jon Swallen.

According to Bruce Horovitz and Julie Appleby in Kaiser Health News in March 2017, the top three ads for drugs based on total spending in 2016 were Lyrica, with $313 million in spending, Humira at $303 million and Eliquis at $186 million.

“The drug companies are generally marketing to people in the 65-plus age group and they are the population that tends to still be watching television,” said Allen Adamson, a brand strategy consultant. “And when the ads run on TV, viewers are listening to the side effects.”

For most drug ads I see, it doesn’t matter which one you use, you are taking your chances as all seem to be designed to either kill you or otherwise make life miserable.

Among the many side effects listed are nausea, diarrhea, constipation, dehydration, suicidal thoughts, heartburn, indigestion, jaundice, stabbing chest pain, loss of voice, serious bleeding, pounding in the ears, coughing up blood, vomit that is bloody or looks like coffee grounds, confusion, slurred speech and even death.

Let’s stop there.

Amazingly, however, according to Jeff Rothstein, chief executive officer of ad agency Cult Health, as it turns out compliance with the drug administration’s regulation to list side effects is “enhanced credibility.”

“It’s counterintuitive, but everything in our research suggests hearing about the risks increases consumers’ belief in the advertising,” said Rothstein.

As Howard Courtemanche, president of health and wellness practice at ad agency Young & Rubicam, said, “What is seemingly a negative to people who don’t have the condition or disease is a positive to people who suffer from it,” said Courtemanche. “Their thinking is ‘Of course it has side effects, it’s fighting a really serious illness.”’

In a recent report, the National Academy of Sciences said drug companies “spend substantially more on marketing and administration than on research and development.”

Regardless of how much or for what reason the money is spent, I wonder who will ultimately pay the price.

According to a 2016 poll, most Americans, including doctors, health care people and average citizens think prescription drugs should not be advertised on TV.

Multibillion-dollar drug companies feel otherwise, so I guess we can probably expect the ads to be around for a while.

Keith Barnes, a Wilson storyteller and author, is news editor of the Kenly News, where this column originally appeared.