In Writing

I am not one to pine for the good old days of television, back when there were three main channels and cartoons only on Saturday morning. But there’s one way in which I do pine for them: I long for the days before drug commercials.

As ubiquitous as they seem now, commercials for prescription drugs were not always allowed. It wasn’t until 1997 that the FDA modified its rules to allow for them in the form we know them today. (Notably, one of the driving forces behind the change, according to the book Our Daily Meds, one Michael J. Friedman, soon left the agency and used the infamous government-to-lobbyist revolving door to take a job at the drug giant, Searle).

Since then, the explosion in drug commercials has been marked. It’s hard to watch most channels without being interrupted by, “Do you have moderate-to-severe bubonic plague of the eyelash?” (Or some such), followed by a list of horrific potential side effects almost always worse than the disease the drug purports to cure. In fact, it’s become something of a sport at my house to watch for drug commercials and take the TV off mute (I generally mute commercials), so we can howl at the side effects and the list of nonsensical recommendations.

Not too long ago, we discovered one of the freakiest, for a drug called Latuda, advertised as a treatment for bipolar disorder: “Call your doctor if you have fever, stiff muscles and confusion, as these may be signs of a life-threatening reaction, or if you have uncontrollable muscle movements, as these may become permanent.” (Ummm… what?!? I’m experiencing moderate-to-severe confusion just watching this commercial and wondering why anyone would willingly put this stuff in their bodies). It goes on to warn about other dire potential side effects and then, bafflingly, let us know to avoid “grapefruit and grapefruit juice” while on this drug. That is usually good for a giggle at my house. Why that specific thing? The commercial leaves that a mystery.

I know everyone’s got their own relationship with Western medicine and with the pharma industry. I so far have been able to avoid all prescription drugs (I’ve never even taken a prescription sleeping pill). But then I’ve been lucky health-wise. I am not a medical professional and I am in no position to advise. For myself, I am a firm believer in good diet and exercise as the best tool for staying healthy. But if people need or want meds, as prescribed by their doctors, who am I to judge? The problem is not in the medicines themselves, but in the marketing straight to consumers, which then causes sometimes ill-informed and needy patients to pressure doctors to prescribe one drug over another.  Health decisions shouldn’t be made by marketing pressure, but by informed medical professionals and their patients. (And this doesn’t even cover the vast marketing expenditure aimed directly at doctors).

Here’s food for thought: the United States is one of two Westernized nations that allows direct-to-consumer drug advertising. (New Zealand, a nation of four and a half million, is the other). The pharma industry is a huge and powerful lobby here. Do we want our health influenced by cartoons of playful dogs or shots of calm lakes in a seemingly innocuous commercial? I think I’ll go eat a grapefruit instead.

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