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Advertising vs. Free Samples: Pick Your Poison

If you ever wonder how I stay true to my vision to shatter the existing health care paradigm, look no further than today's New York Times that ran an excellent story about the different approaches AstraZeneca uses to sell its popular "purple pill" Nexium to "relieve" stomach and heartburn problems. The amount of consumer advertising AstraZeneca spent on Nexium alone last year -- some $260 million -- that was aimed at users probably had a lot to do with why U.S. sales topped $3 BILLION.

Even more obscene: In the seven years since FDA dropped its ban on drug advertising, pharmaceutical firms have spent almost $4 billion annually.

Still, the use of ads to promote drugs has taken a major hit in recent days with the recent Vioxx recall, however, with various political candidates taking drug companies to task for the practice. Interestingly enough, a 2002 General Accounting Office report found drug companies spent far more providing free samples of drugs to doctors than in advertising to consumers.

Even with all the hoopla, FDA spokespeople say there are no plans to restrict drugs. In fact, they are already studying a proposal aimed at further loosening the rules that would allow drug makers to simplify magazine and newspaper ads that are now required to list detailed data about benefits and risks -- often listed in tiny type. The change would permit the print ads to be more reader-friendly, concentrating on the most important or common side effects, for instance.

Fact is, almost no one really needs Nexium. Maybe less than one in 100 actually do. Nevertheless, people are being prescribed drugs for heartburn when it is one of the easiest medical problems to treat. Most people ignore that heartburn is an important clue from their body and rely on a drug to suppress the symptoms.

This is the equivalent of driving your car and ignoring the engine light that comes on on your dashboard to warn you of a problem. Using a "band-aid" style drug like Nexium to cover the light allows you to ignore the problem and, although it may solve the problem in the short-term, the implications for ignoring this important clue are quite obvious. You could be looking at more costly repairs by not acknowledging the symptom.

The Lakeland Ledger October 12, 2004

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