Most of us have our guard up when it comes to TV drug ads. We know the butterflies, sunsets and puppies are designed to distract us from terms like “blood clot,” “heart attack,” “stroke,” “seizure,” “life-threatening allergic reaction” and “death.” We realize the audio—if not the video—is actually telling us why we don’t want to “ask our doctor” about the advertised drug.
Few of us, though, have our guard up for “unbranded advertising”—ads which warn us about a disease without admitting they are trying to sell a drug for it. Unbranded advertising is designed to appear like a public health message from the CDC and some even run free on TV and radio as “public service announcements.”
Unbranded advertising has warned us we might have “Non-24 Hour Sleep Wake Disorder,” (not just afflicting blind people), “Shift Work Sleep Disorder” and of course the diarrhea and gas producing exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI). With the latter, we should “not keep a lid on it” but “open up to our doctor.”
The hallmark of unbranded advertising is a roster of frightening symptoms that could apply to anyone. Often the disease being sold is called “under-diagnosed,” “underreported” and a “silent killer.” Everyone is at risk. When the ad is selling a psychiatric disease, it cites “barriers” and “stigmas to treatment” though as much as a quarter of the population is now on psych drugs so there can’t be too much of a “stigma.”
What the unbranded ads do not do, of course, is name the drug they are selling and its colossal price. Drugs like Creon for EPI which costs $518.97 a month or Xyrem for narcolepsy which will set you back $5,416 a month. Ka-ching.
The prices are one reason our health care costs have skyrocketed. The popular Hep C drugs sell for as much as $1,000 a pill, “straining the budgets of insurance companies and Medicaid programs,” wrote the New York Times. AbbVie’s Humira, currently the best selling drug in the U.S., costs as much as $20,000 a year. (Injectable “biologic” drugs are Pharma’s new push because they are so expensive and less susceptible to generic competition than pills.)
While Pharma tries to cast the outrageous prices as recouping the cost of their research and development, their claims have been widely disputed. Most industry watchers and Congress itself realize that “value” pricing is simply extortion pricing—what Pharma can get.
Whenever a reporter reveals how Pharma sells diseases to sell pills, we get veritable hate mail. “How dare you imply that Can’t-Wake-Up-in-the-Morning disease doesn’t exist? I have suffered for years!” they scream as they threaten us and our editors and claim we are trying to take their drugs away. “I have adult ADHD and no one can tell me I don’t!”
Of course, reporters do not suggest the diseases do not exist but rather that they are so rare that publicizing them to general audiences is an unethical method of “selling” them. This is especially true when, like psychiatric conditions, there is no clear blood or lab test to confirm the condition’s presence and it is a judgment call.
Before drug advertising, you went to the doctor when you had symptoms. Now, people go to the doctor when they are symptom-free but saw a TV ad about a disease they “might” have. Media companies are silent about this perversion of the fundamentals of medicine—it is hoped you are sick not well—because the ads are a huge part of their revenue. Meanwhile our health care costs rise as people obediently ask their doctors about Pharma’s disease du jour.
Martha Rosenberg is an award-winning investigative public health reporter who covers the food, drug and gun industries. Her first book, “Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health,” is distributed by Random House. Rosenberg has appeared on CSPAN and NPR and lectured at medical schools and at the Mid-Manhattan Public Library.