Congress should reimpose ban on TV prescription drug ads

Now that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has the power to regulate tobacco advertising, it should consider doing the same for another potentially addictive substance — prescription drugs.

The FDA didn't allow television and radio advertising of prescription drugs until 1997 when it ended a longstanding ban, subject only to truth-in-advertising guidelines and certain other restrictions.

Since then our dinnertimes have been disrupted by early evening prescription drug commercials that range through different shades of gross to merely downright silly. What, pray tell, is "restless legs syndrome"? The only time I've ever encountered it is watching Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly on Turner Classic Movies.

Potentially dangerous side effects are given short shrift with printed warnings that seldom stay on the screen long enough to read and absorb. Sometimes the conditions seem to be constructed out of whole cloth. Often one is instructed to see the sponsor's ad in a magazine for further details. Alternative treatments such as frequent exercise and better nutrition are rarely, if ever, mentioned.

The blitzkrieg by drug manufacturers is rolling across the endless Internet as well — using popular social media Web sites such as YouTube, Facebook and MySpace to tout cures for obesity, depression or leaky bladders.

Unfortunately, the worst may be yet to come. Peter J. Pitts, a former FDA associate commissioner who now heads the global healthcare practice for the public relations firm Porter Novelli, recently observed that the pharmaceutical industry thus far has only fired small-caliber ammo into cyberspace.

Big Pharma's trendy rush to the Internet doesn't mean it is abandoning TV pitches — far from it. Advertising Age, Madison Avenue's must-read weekly, says there was only a negligible tail-off in TV ad spending from 2007 to 2008 — $3 billion to $2.9 billion.

The FDA already concedes it's not equipped to monitor TV for drug ad violations. It likely wouldn't be an effective watchdog of advertising across the much farther reaches of the Internet either, since it has no guidelines in place and much of this year's budget increase will be spent creating a separate division to police tobacco products.

The current system for regulating the drug industry's advertising on TV is ludicrous and regulation of pill-pushing on the Internet is non-existent. Given the FDA's track record of bowing-and-scrapping to Big Pharma, the best course of action is to revert to the pre-1997 policy of banning all direct-to-the-consumer advertising.

Most of the current drug advertising on TV and the Internet doesn't appear to be aimed at producing more informed patients. Its chief goal, indeed, appears to be stampeding panicked consumers into doctors' offices to demand prescriptions for medicines they may not need to treat diseases they may not have.

Certified physicians should be the only determiner for the prescription drugs Americans take. They and they alone have the accumulated knowledge and experience to put their patients on the proper path to good health.

The barrage of mindless commercials that greet viewers on early evening TV or crop up on the Internet are designed chiefly to manipulate patients desires. Furthermore, they take valuable time from a doctor's daily regimen — time that could be better spent on figuring out patients' medical problems and then, hopefully, finding remedies.

If the FDA doesn't reinstitute the ban on drug advertising soon, Congress should.

Madsen is a contributing writer to the progressive Online Journal (