December 12, 1997

Advertising Prescription Drugs I

APOTHECARY, n. The physician's accomplice, undertaker's benefactor and grave worm's provider.

Ambrose Bierce(1842-1914)

The venerable National Geographic magazine now advertises drugs. Are the drugs legal? Of course they are. Would National Geographic advertise something illegal? Well, if they are legal, can you go to your drug store and buy some? No; not without a prescription from your doctor. That is because the Food and Drug Administration(FDA) considers those drugs hazardous enough so that they should not be dispensed and used like aspirin.

So why is Merck advertising prescription drugs? They are advertising them in order to convince people to buy them, so that they can sell lots of pills and make lots of money. That is what all businesses are interested in.

Their advertisement consists of a cartoon man with a big head and a pained expression, holding his chest. In big purple type, it says "If your heartburn medicine works so well, why do you keep getting heartburn?" The ad doesn't answer that question, but I will. If you get heartburn, it is because the hydrochloric acid in your stomach (which is normal and necessary in your stomach) is getting into your esophagus. The esophagus can't handle acid like the stomach does, so it burns the lining of the esophagus and causes pain. It can usually be dealt with by avoiding the foods that cause it. Sometimes sleeping on your right side helps. If you do get heartburn, a pinch of baking soda(sodium bicarbonate) in a tablespoon of water can be sipped slowly. Just a sip or two should do the trick if you don't wait too long. It will neutralize the acid. If you take too much, it will combine with the acid in your stomach and form carbon dioxide. You will then have gas in your stomach, for which the drug companies have still another medicine.

All of the drugs that reduce stomach acid are useful when stomach acid is the primary problem. What they don't tell you in the ad is that the drug won't do a damn thing once you have heartburn. So what? If everybody who has occasional heartburn takes one of these pills every day, the drug company will make a bundle.

If you turn to the back of the page, you will find, in very small type, the stuff that all drug companies include with their product. Does it show that the company is honest? Not at all. What it does is cover their asses so that they can't be sued if you have big problems with their product.

Is the writing understandable? It may be if you have a background in experimental medicine. I have such a background, and I found some of it rough going. But it does give you the impression that they are giving you "the facts."

They make sure to tell you to "ask your doctor" about the drug. Of course, if you don't ask, or tell, your doctor, you won't get the prescription that you will need to buy the drug, nor will your medical insurance pay for it. Will your doctor have read about it in the medical journals? Probably not, but you can bet that he has been approached by one of the company's detail men. What is a detail man? He is a salesman for the drug company who contacts doctors. Does a detail man know very much? He has memorized what the company has told him. Does he have any background that would enable him to understand medicine? Probably not.

You might find it interesting that the United States and New Zealand are the only countries in the world that permit the advertising of prescription drugs.

If the drug companies have their way, every person in the world, healthy or sick, young or old, will be taking a bunch of pills every day. There is a fortune to be made on legal drugs as well as illegal drugs. What the consequences will be of this massive taking of drugs remains to be seen. I would be willing to bet that many more people will be killed or injured as a consequence of drug advertising than will be helped.

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