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Bad Ad Program: FDA Aims to Keep Drug Promotion Truthful

If you watch television, surf the Web, or read a magazine, you’ve likely seen prescription drug advertisements. Drug companies promote their products to consumers through these and other media.

However, drug companies promote their products to health care professionals in other ways. Representatives from drug firms market their products in places such as doctors’ offices, hospitals, pharmacies, and at medical conventions.

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The pharmaceutical industry spends nearly three times as much on advertising to health care professionals as they do advertising to consumers, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Responsible promotional efforts by pharmaceutical companies can give health care professionals valuable information about the latest drug treatments. But when drug promotion is misleading or unbalanced, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) takes the necessary steps to stop the promotion.

On May 11, 2010, Commissioner of Food and Drugs Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., sent a letter to health care professionals to announce the launch of the “Bad Ad Program.” Through this new outreach initiative, FDA is asking these professionals to help it make sure that the promotion of prescription drugs is truthful and not misleading.

“This program will help health care professionals recognize misleading prescription drug promotion and provide them with an easy way to report this activity to the agency,” says Thomas Abrams, director of FDA’s Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising, and Communications (DDMAC).

Better Information About Prescription Drugs

“We’ve seen promotion that is accurate and balanced and provides good and useful information to doctors and patients,” says Michael Sauers, a group leader in DDMAC. “Having complete and good information will help doctors in the decisions they need to make about treatment options for their patients.”

But not all promotions are accurate and balanced.

“One of the biggest problems is that sometimes the drug reps promote a drug’s effectiveness while playing down the risks,” says Robert Dean, also a group leader in DDMAC. “One tactic is to try to disconnect the known risk from their specific drug by claiming that the risk is seen with other competing products, but not their drug. Or they may claim that the risks of their drug are less likely to occur than shown in clinical trials.”

Another problem is overstating the effectiveness of a drug, for example, by saying the drug works in as little as three days, when the majority of patients in studies took three months to show results.

Promotional Settings

FDA’s DDMAC aims to ensure that all prescription drug promotion is truthful, balanced, and accurately communicated. Promotions it regulates include

  • sales representative presentations
  • speaker program presentations
  • TV and radio advertisements
  • written or printed drug promotional materials

Traditionally, DDMAC has monitored prescription drug promotions through

  • review of promotional materials submitted by companies
  • investigation of complaints about drug promotions
  • close observation (surveillance) of drug promotions at large medical conventions
  • review of promotion using the Internet

WebMD Public Information from the FDA