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  • Volume Eight, Number Seven: October 2003

    Those TV Drug Ads Could Cost You More

    Colleen Fuller

    The global drug industry is a complicated animal. It’s big and aggressive; it’s greedy; it lacks ethics and morals; its annual revenues are in the double digits--in fact, it doesn’t seem to matter what’s happening in the rest of the economy, the drug industry still rakes in billions and billions of dollars—US dollars--every year. Every year.

    So it’s a good thing that Canada’s Standing Committee on Health has decided to study prescription drugs in Canada. The Committee is holding hearings across the country on a broad array of issues about prescription drugs, everything from prices and advertising to drug approvals and what it politely describes as “marketing to and lobbying of prescribers and dispensers” – also known as influencing what drugs doctors tell their patients take.

    The Committee’s first day of hearings, held in Vancouver, was interesting. The morning began with several presentations, including one by Barbara Mintzes on what’s called “direct-to-consumer advertising,” also known as DTCA. Canada doesn’t allow DTCA, at least in theory, but more companies are taking advantage of what are referred to as “grey” areas in the Food and Drugs Act. Those who are involved in defending the principles of medicare entrenched in the Canada Health Act will be familiar with the “grey zone” tactic. That’s where the bad guys – the ones who want to privatize everything or rip off consumers who need prescription drugs – say black is white and up is down.

    Mintzes, who is one of the world’s experts on DTCA, says that advertising has an overall negative impact on drug costs. She and others have estimated that if DTCA was permitted in Canada, the drug industry would see an additional $1.2-billion a year in new drug sales. That’s good for the industry, but what about the rest of us?

    According to Mintzes and other progressive experts, DTCA not only leads to overall higher drug costs, it also carries real health risks for consumers. She points to Rezulin, a drug that was targeted at patients with Type 2 diabetes. Rezulin (troglitazone) was advertised to the US public for over two years after it was withdrawn in the UK for safety reasons. “It was never found to save a single life,” says Mintzes. “It just wasn't studied long enough or in a big enough group of patients to know its effects on serious complications of diabetes…By the time it was withdrawn from the US market it was the suspected cause of nearly 400 deaths, including 63 from liver failure, the reason for the UK withdrawal," she explained.

    In recent years, Canadians have been bombarded with drug ads, mainly from US sources. Since the 1990's, the Canadian government has been much less vigorous in enforcing the legal ban on drug advertising. I’m sure you’ve seen the annoying ads for drugs like Zyban and Diane 35.

    The Standing Committee on Health is looking at direct-to-consumer advertising of drugs among many other important issues. It seems that the MPs on the Committee want to do something constructive on this issue. If you have something to say write them. Or better yet, contact Svend Robinson who’s on the Committee and let him know your views.

    Colleen Fuller is a lower mainland advocate for health care consumers and a defender of universal public health care.

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