As seen on TV

April 28, 2005

WHY DO DRUG companies spend billions on direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs when it's the doctors, not the patients, who write the prescriptions? An unconventional study published yesterday in The Journal of the American Medical Association gives a pretty clear answer. Researchers coached actors to visit doctors' offices with symptoms of specific mental health disorders. The pretend patients who asked for an antidepressant were far more likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness. Those who asked for a specific drug, Paxil, often received it.

The only surprise here is that anyone might have doubted this outcome. Drug companies claim their ads are beneficial - they encourage people to seek treatment. But clearly, something more troubling is afoot. Doctors are capitulating to patient requests for drugs, even down to a specific brand. Is it the right drug? Or even the right treatment? That's not so clear.

Public health advocates have long complained that the Food and Drug Administration needs to get tougher on misleading ads for prescription drugs. Congress should consider whether the warnings currently required in the ads are adequate. Perhaps every drug ad ought to include a comparison of potential treatments. Medicine is a science, not a fashion. Ads should at least live up to the oath: First, do no harm.

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