Big Pharma, like many facile terms, can mean a lot of things, many of which are either conspiratorial in nature or flat-out nonsense. As I use it here, it means pharmaceutical manufacturers and marketers that are for-profit corporations whose primary responsibility is to benefit shareholders. Every other stakeholder, including consumers, as well as the general notion of public health, occupy a less important position than the company’s investors. That’s the nature of any for-profit business in this era of late-stage global capitalism and it often comes into conflict with the needs of individuals and society at large.
Here we go: Why in this or any other world would pharmaceutical manufacturers and marketers want or need to advertise their drugs to us? It’s not as though we can try out this or that drug, as we do when trying to decide what our fave breakfast cereal should be.
Here are three drugs often (very often) advertised on YouTube before the video you want to see begins:
In each case, the entire ad consists of a pleasant, pastoral scene or a happy family get-together with the words “Ask Your Doctor About _______” superimposed. Each ad lasts five seconds. And the use and purpose of each drug is utterly unknown to me as well as, I assume, 99.99 percent of the populace.
To borrow a line from Tony Soprano, I ask you again, what da fuck?
Da fuck, acc’d’g to my digging, is this: The Food and Drug Administration began allowing prescription drug makers to advertise, direct-to-consumer, in 1997.
At first, they created ads they hoped would convince millions of viewers they had one or another heretofore unheard-of or rare-ish malady. Examples: ankylosing spondylitis, erectile dysfunction (as a pathology), etc. Then they followed up with ads for cures.
Many people when they hear a radio or TV announcement about depression or ankylosing spondylitis think it is from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or other medical group concerned with public health. Wrong. Most “disease awareness” messages are from Big Pharma trying to get people to diagnose themselves with a certain disease to churn “demand” for a new Pharma drug.
Ankylosing spondylitis, by the way, is a rare-ish autoimmune or auto inflammatory disease that affects the human spine, causing great pain. The disease has no cure as yet and treatment consists of some combination of pain relievers, exercise, physical therapy and, occasionally, surgery. In other words, doctors by and large throw spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks.
Perhaps as few as 0.1 percent of people actually contract the condition. That’s one of every thousand people. It’s a good bet you don’t know anybody who has it.
Yet pharmaceutical companies a few years back flooded the airwaves with dire warnings about the malady. The reason? Hell, pretty much everybody experiences back pain now and again. The makers of AS drugs hoped enough people would harass their primary care physicians about them — and, really, they only relieve pain — that sales would soar. And they did.
Big Pharma’s marketers saw that as a win. You and I shouldn’t.
Many medical advocacy groups say that drug companies employ direct-to-consumer advertising in a way that puts consumers at a disadvantage. First, the FDA cannot limit the amount of money companies spend on advertising; nor can it ban ads for drugs that have serious risks. Companies don’t have to spell out exactly how the drug works, mention the cost, or note if there is a generic drug in the same class or a similar drug with fewer risks.
The ad blitz of expensive brand-name drugs is often cited as a factor for rising health care costs. Prescription drugs accounted for nearly 17% of total health care spending in 2015, up from about 7% in the 1990s before revised FDA guidelines went into effect.
Once Big Pharma squeezed as much mileage out of trying to convince you you had a certain disease, then it began marketing specific drugs. The drugs Prozac, Viagra, Cialis, and Celebrex were among the early brand names hammered home on TV, radio, and internet ads after the FDA’s relaxing of restrictions. Drug companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars yearly advertising each of them and many others.
People then began hectoring their doctors for them. Opioids, too. Doctors — many of them well-meaning but a certain percentage of them craven — got writer’s cramp penning scrips for opioids.
In recent years, the drug companies’ ad people decided it’d be even better to throw drug names out there w/o planting the disease in your mind first, reversing their earlier strategy. Ergo the three drugs I mention above.
The only possible line of reasoning, as I see it, goes like this: You’ll hear about the drug so many times that you’ll either look it up yourself or catch wind of it from somebody else who has looked it up. Then it’ll stew in your mind until, voila, you’re starting to feel symptoms. The ads’ end goal is for you to go to your doctor, harangue her or him about your symptoms, real or imagined, or pepper her/him with questions about this or that drug until s/he finally whips out pen and scrip pad just to get rid of you.
Doctors are only human and, as such, can take only so much bellyaching each day. If dashing off a scrip prevents endless patient carping and gets said patient out of the examination room quicker so the doc can see others, then what’s the harm?
One answer would be the opioid epidemic.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 100,000 people died of opioid overdoses in the year ending in April, 2021.
As we’ve learned via the myriad lawsuits against the Sackler family’s Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, its marketers and sales reps stood on their heads to get doctors to write prescriptions for the drug, even after it was determined it was highly addictive and being prescribed needlessly in hundreds of thousands of cases. Big consumer distributors like CVS, Walgreen’s and Walmart also have been named in the suits. As I said, it’s a medical-industrial complex.
So, like the military-industrial complex, the medical-industrial complex is a dangerous racket.
BTW: here’s what those three drugs advertised on YouTube do:
Xeljanz — generic name, tofacitiib; developer, a public-private partnership of Pfizer Inc. and the National Institutes of Health; used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, and ulcerative colitis.
For the life of me, I can’t imagine too many people capable of accurately self-diagnosing these maladies. But, that’s what the advertisers want you to do. And then go harass your doctor.