Over dinner in the Colorado Rockies one summer a couple of years back, a colleague told me she couldn’t wait to see the new season of drug advertisements that were soon to appear on TV in the US, so that she could hear about all those new diseases she might have, and find out what was really wrong with her.
Depending what Big Pharma was pushing that year, the healthy young woman could take her pick from several frightening new disorders afflicting tens of millions of Americans, including the recently discovered Female S-xual Dysfunction, the poorly branded Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder, and the very worrying Social Anxiety Disorder.
Still banned in most of the world, including Australia, the aggressive promotion of new prescription drugs — and the diseases that create the markets for them — is now a well established feature of prime-time US television. Over the last decade, following a loosening of the regulations in Washington DC, drug companies have rapidly diverted more and more of their marketing budgets to direct-to-consumer advertising, now spending almost $5 billion a year on these ads.
Increasingly frustrated by the bans outside the US, the global pharmaceutical industry has apparently decided to set up its own TV station, which would be available on the web, according to a story which broke in Britain’s Guardian last week. The plans were floated at a meeting in Europe, where the industry is heavily lobbying the European Commission to overturn the ad ban. According to the Guardian, four giant companies are involved, including Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson.
The industry’s official position in Europe is that drug companies don’t really want to “advertise” — they just want to be able to objectively “inform” — a claim as laughable as it is deceptive. Whenever researchers have scrutinised the “information” that comes from drug companies, it is found to be highly misleading: drug benefits are routinely exaggerated, side effects played down, and ordinary life increasingly turned into disease in order to expand markets.
While a new web-based drug TV station would do wonders for pharma shareholders, it would be a disaster for public health, skewing the prescribing behaviour of health professionals and the appetites of the public even further towards the latest and most expensive pills.
But then again, I can’t wait to see the ads for Motivational Deficiency Disorder.