The AIDS Healthcare Foundation, specializing in HIV medical care, is planning to sue drug manufacturer Pfizer for its allegedly misleading promotion of its signature anti-impotence drug Viagra. The AHF is accusing Pfizer of marketing Viagra as a “safe, sexy, lifestyle, recreational drug” that has led to an increase in risky behavior and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

No, this is not (unfortunately) a rehash of an earlier column I wrote on AIDS awareness. Rather, the AHF suit presents the perfect opportunity to call for the end of direct-to-consumer (DTC) prescription drug advertising.

According to Gary Ruskin of the consumer group Commercial Alert, the rules for DTC advertising of prescription drugs were unclear until 1997, when the Food and Drug Administration issued draft guidance for doing so legally. While pharmaceutical representatives had testified before Congress against DTC advertising, the advertising industry was actually the main lobbying force behind the change in policy.

The Public Health Protection Act is a piece of proposed federal legislation that would prohibit DTC prescription drug advertising – with the exception of print advertising containing only names and prices of prescription drugs or directing consumers to a particular location prescription drugs are sold. Prescription drug advertising directed at consumers does a disservice to our society for several reasons.

Since consumers cannot obtain prescription drugs without permission from a doctor, there is really not a compelling reason to advertise them like any other product. Prescription drugs are fundamentally different from other consumer products like flat-screen TVs or potato chips – they cannot be purchased without consultation with, and written consent from, a doctor.

Many prescription drugs have harmful side effects, and consumers with no medical training are not qualified to diagnose themselves after seeing a 30-second TV spot of happy children dancing in a sunny field. DTC advertising creates false impressions of the benefits and drawbacks of prescription drugs. It is not possible in such a limited medium to adequately cover exactly who should and should not take certain drugs and what possible consequences can arise as a result of doing so.

America’s health care system has enough problems without DTC adding demand for prescription drugs. People view the TV commercials and demand medicine that not all of them actually need. This fills up waiting rooms at the expense of people who actually have a reason to see the doctor. It also drives up insurance costs, because most people won’t be paying the full price – if they pay at all – for their prescriptions.

Speaking of price, which drugs do you think the pharmaceutical companies are going to advertise heavily – the cheap ones or the expensive ones?

Some people argue against a ban on DTC advertising on the grounds of freedom of speech. This complaint is specious for two reasons. First, companies have no “right” to advertise products to people who cannot directly obtain them, i.e., alcohol and tobacco to minors. Second, there are already valid prohibitions against advertising certain harmful products on television.

Others maintain that DTC advertising is useful for consumers. In its current format, this is not the case. In his 2005 book “Generation Rx,” Greg Critser describes a 1985 ad campaign for an antihistamine drug called Seldane back in the days of the DTC gray area. Seldane was special because, unlike other antihistamines at the time, it didn’t make you drowsy.

To avoid problems with the Food and Drug Administration, two advertisers planning the campaign decided not to mention the drug name or its beneficial effects, just the facts that “a new drug for allergies is out,” and “it does not make you drowsy.” Want to know more? “Go see your doctor.” One of the men commented, “We wanted it to be almost journalistic. . Your doctor is the one who can explain it to you. Period. No emotion. No product name.”

This nondescript ad campaign was actually quite successful, even without any of the aggressive tactics found in today’s drug commercials.

That’s what an educational ad tells consumers. Not “Be this Sunday’s MVP,” as Viagra ads running during the 2006 Super Bowl implored.

More than $4 billion was spent on prescription drug promotion in 2004 alone. With health care costs spiraling out of control, this money can be better spent elsewhere. Pharmaceutical companies can still advertise their products to the proper targets: doctors, hospitals, etc. – the people who are qualified to make decisions about prescription drugs.

Passing the common-sense ban contained in the Public Health Protection Act isn’t really about persuasion; it’s about awareness. Thanks to pharmaceutical companies, many consumers now know what to do if they have an erection that lasts longer than four hours. Let’s make sure they also know how to avoid hearing about them in the first place.

Eric Rodawig is a senior in the College and a contributing editor for THE HOYA. He can be reached at THOUGHTCRIME appears every other Friday.

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