Direct-to-Consumer Advertising: Are You Sure You’re Not Sick?

The term “bipolar” has been vaulted into the public domain by drug makers seeking to enlarge the diagnosis to sell more meds. But is there anything more “bipolar” than direct-to-consumer (DTC) drug ads themselves?

While we see images of puppies, grandkids, rainbows and shuffleboard players, the ads’ audio warns that the advertised drug may cause infections, seizures, brain bleeds and death-side effects that sound worse than the condition they are supposed to treat.

Direct-to-Consumer Drug Ads

DTC drugs ads now so dominate news stations and TV shows, often back to back, it can appear that you have somehow tuned into the “Pharma channel.” And when drug makers provide so much ad revenue, drug risks and drug maker corruption will not be reported. Why bite the hand that feeds you the ad recipients figure.

There are many insidious aspects to this relentless drug maker marketing – the raising of our medical costs and taxes, the marketing of drugs before their safety profiles and dangers are known* – but possibly the most harmful effect of DTC advertising is sowing hypochondria and convincing healthy people they are “sick.”

*for example, statins were blockbusters before their side effects were described; SSRIs are still blockbusters though their bone effects have only recently been acknowledged

direct to consumer pharma ads for ailments you didn't know existed. Image by Ewa Urban from Pixabay
direct to consumer pharma ads for ailments you didn’t know existed. Image by Ewa Urban from Pixabay

Advertising Disease

Most Pharma watchers know that psychiatric conditions like depression, bipolar disorder and ADHD have been mongered but non-psychiatric conditions like restless leg syndrome, “Low T,” autoimmune conditions, irritable bowel syndrome, dry eye and menopause are also mongered.

Transthyretin Amyloid Cardiomyopathy

Recently Pfizer began mongering “transthyretin amyloid cardiomyopathy” in radio campaigns. While few can even say it much less have ever heard of the “rare, serious, underrecognized and underdiagnosed type of amyloidosis that affects the heart and is associated with heart failure,” as Pfizer says, if you have fatigue, stomach issues, shoulder, hip and/or knee pain, swelling or numbness in your legs or shortness of breath you may have ATTR-CM and your heart may be at risk. See your doctor-now!

Geographic Atrophy

Another disease now mongered by a spokesman who was the former “Fonz” Henry Winkler is “GA” or geographic atrophy, an advanced form of age-related macular degeneration, that is not reversible and linked to blindness. Do straight lines appear wavy? Do you require extra light to read? Do there seem to be missing spots in your vision? See your doc!

Needless to say, the “disease” is not marketed or mongered until drug makers have a pill for it. For ATTR-CM, Pfizer sells VYNDAQEL and VYNDAMAX; for GA, drug maker Apellis sells SYFOVRE? What good is “disease awareness” without a product to sell?

Contradictory Messages

Some disease mongering is internally contradictory. While a radio ad for a proton pump inhibitor (PPI) starts with a woman saying she takes the drug every day and experiences no heartburn – she is all better, the ad ends with the warning the PPI should “should be taken for no more than 14 days. If your symptoms have not improved after 14 days, let your provider know.”

Moreover, the “disease” of GERD or Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease is often just “heartburn” and poor eating. “The implication in the direct-to-consumer ads is if you have heartburn you’re well on your way to cancer of the esophagus,” says Marcia Angell, MD, a former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and author of The Truth about the Drug Companies. “For most people who have heartburn, the best way to treat it is probably to lose a little weight, get out and take a walk or drink a glass of milk, but that somehow is seen as less good than taking a prescription drug.”

Side Effects

And there is an another problem with drug makers’ love of marketing PPIs. The drugs are linked to an increased risk of kidney, liver, and cardiovascular disease, dementia, enteroendocrine tumors of the gastrointestinal tract, susceptibility to respiratory and gastrointestinal infections, and impaired absorption of nutrients according to the journal Cureus.

So, when it comes to drug marketing – and even food marketing because of dangerous ingredients that lurk, unlabeled – the watchword continues to be “buyer beware.” Your health is less important to drug makers than the health of their profits. Direct-to-consumer advertising appears to be increasingly prevalent to generate more profit.

Martha Rosenberg’s most recent book, published in October, is Big Food, Big Pharma, Big Lies.

Martha Rosenberg

Martha Rosenberg is the Investigative Health Correspondent for NewsBlaze. Martha illustrates many of her stories with relevant cartoons. She was staff cartoonist at Evanston Roundtable.