FDA Calls Prescription Drug Ads Misleading

ByABC News

W A S H I N G T O N, Jan. 3, 2001 -- Dr. Bradford Pontz can always spot the patient who has seen — and been sold on — a commercial for a prescription drug.

“They feel like the TV ads have convinced them that this medicine will cure them forever and they are reluctant to listen to other advice,” Pontz says.

The power of advertising is clear. As drug companies’ marketing budgets have exploded, the number of prescriptions being issued has climbed.

FDA Sends Out Many Citations

Enter Tom Abrams, the chief watchdog at the Food and Drug Administration for deceptive advertising. He says some ads stretch the truth with overstated claims of effectiveness and understated descriptions of side effects.

“There is no guarantee that it’s a balanced presentation or there is not some misleading information,” Abrams says.

Every year, the FDA sends about 100 letters to drug companies demanding changes in television commercials, magazine ads and other promotional materials. Some companies are repeat offenders.

For example, the makers of Celebrex, the hugely popular drug for arthritis, have been cited for three different promotions. Most recently, the company was cited for a TV commercial that claims the drug offers “powerful 24-hour relief.”

The FDA said that promise, coupled with the images of active people, “suggest that Celebrex is more effective than has been demonstrated by substantial evidence.”

The makers of the allergy drug Claritin are also repeat offenders, the FDA says. Since 1997, the manufacturers have been told 10 times to change their sales pitches. And the maker of two other allergy drugs — Flonase and Flovent — has been cited 12 times for commercials and other sales material. The FDA also targeted the makers of Meridia, Prilosec, Lipitor and Provocal.

“They are leaving an impression on people’s minds — and this is intentional — that the drugs can deliver more than they actually do,” says Dr. Sharon Levine of RX Alliance.

Drug Companies Tight-Lipped

The industry is not anxious to talk about the issue. Four companies contacted by ABCNEWS — including the makers of Celebrex, Claritin, Meridia and Flonase — all refused requests for interviews.

The FDA has never taken a company to court; the industry usually complies and changes its advertising. But some drug makers do try — again — to get away with what the government believes is not truth in advertising.

In the meantime, should consumers be wary? Pontz says he tells his patients to view ads about drugs with the same skepticism they would for any advertised product — and not to consider them the final word.

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