There are so many important issues surrounding drug safety — better labels, more transparent clinical trial results, e-prescribing, compliance, to name only a few. Drug advertising just isn’t one of them. The pickle is that it’s the most visible. The continuing debate over whether or not consumer advertising for prescription drugs is “good” or “bad” misses the point — the genie (as Janet Woodcock has said) cannot be put back in the bottle. Certain segments of our already over-regulated society are suffering from a severe Washington-induced over-dose of self-righteousness. And that includes many members of Congress.
By no stretch of the imagination should government be in the business of controlling either the message or the medium.
What would you think if the Federal Communications Commission and the Food and Drug Administration got together and decided that too many sound bites of Charles Grassley or Maurice Hinchley were hazardous to the health of the American television viewer? Why you’d be upset, right? I would. (Really, I would.)
There are, of course, some things that should be regulated. That’s what living in a civilized, modern society is all about. The Pursuit of Happiness means that, even though we live in a free society, you can’t yell “fire” in a crowded movie theater. Factories aren’t allowed to poison the air and water, and consumer products must advertise themselves truthfully. That’s the 21st century Social Contract.
And pharmaceutical advertisements must be accurate, fair and balanced — as defined and reviewed by the FDA. Most people (and I think it’s fair to say most legislators) don’t understand that the brief summary (otherwise known as the “small print”) and the fair balance and adequate provision (more frequently referred to as the part of the TV ads where they talk about all the bad stuff that can happen) is dictated by the FDA. And I mean “dictated” like in “take this down verbatim and use it.”
At a Senate hearing Senator Debbie Stabenow asked Janet Woodcock (who was Director of CDER at the time — the center that contains the division that reviews pharmaceutical promotional materials including consumer ads) why FDA approved so many ads. Dr. Woodcock paused and then reminded the Senator that FDA doesn’t approve ads, they review them. And that ain’t just a rhetorical finesse.
DTC ads aren’t perfect, but they do provide significant benefits to the public health. There’s plenty of information and opinion on this topic on this vey blog site. But the big issue is free speech. It’s the first amendment — and for a reason.
If we pursue restrictions on pharmaceutical DTC advertising and promotion, can a total prohibition be far behind? It’s certainly possible — then watch for steroid-injected special interests going after …
* Big Macs and Whoppers. After all, cholesterol kills.
* Hummers and SUVs. An insidious plot by the oil industry to promote irresponsible petroleum consumption.
* Disposable Diapers. A real biohazard. Banning them is more than a job — it’s a doody.
* M&M candies. All of the colors are not equally represented.
Sound absurd? When you hear people talk about banning, restricting or limiting any type of speech don’t be passive. Make no mistake — advertising is on the cutting edge of free speech.
The same people who would restrict and then ban pharmaceutical ads would fight to the bitter end for other people’s right to publish pornography and produce films containing the most violent and vile acts conceivable. Don’t doubt it for a minute.