Adding fuel to the debate over misleading drug advertisements, a consumer advocacy group charged yesterday that pharmaceutical manufacturers are providing physicians with "potentially dangerous misinformation on an extremely wide scale."
The Public Citizen Health Research Group announced its conclusion after analyzing data it obtained from a widely publicized University of California, Los Angeles study of advertisements in medical journals. That study, published in the June issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, found that about three-fifths of a sample of 109 recent ads were in apparent violation of federal regulations and deserved rejection or major revision. The study did not name the drugs, their manufacturers, or the specific criticisms that independent analysts made of the ads.
According to additional data obtained by the consumer group, 27 of 39 pharmaceutical companies with ads in the study had at least one improper ad. The worst offender in the new analysis was SmithKline Beecham of Philadelphia; all 12 of the company's ads considered in the study were found by independent analysts to be worthy of rejection or major revision.
These experts recommended rejection or major revisions for 75 percent or more of the ads for psychotropic drugs such as sleeping pills and anti-depression medications, birth control pills and asthma drugs. Ads for heart drugs fared better, with only 40 percent recommended for rejection or major revision.
The data "confirm my notion that the people who are marketing drugs don't have standards any better than the people who market used cars or laundry detergent," said Dr. Sidney M. Wolfe, the director of the organization.
In response, the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association, which represents many large drug companies, reiterated criticisms of the original study that it made in June. A spokesman for SmithKline Beecham said that the company's ads "are subject to a rigorous internal approval process. . . . We are confident our ads are responsible, accurate and meet all regulatory standards."
Studies suggest that ads are a powerful influence on doctor's decisions about prescribing. They are also a major source of income for medical journals and the medical organizations that publish them. In 1991, the pharmaceutical industry spent about $350 million on advertisements.