Drug Firms Change Web Ads After FDA Warning


Some big pharmaceutical companies haven’t been telling the whole story about their drugs in online advertisements, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Regulators told 14 drug makers, including GlaxoSmithKline (Stock Quote: GSK), Pfizer (Stock Quote: PFE), Merck (Stock Quote: MRK) and Eli Lilly (Stock Quote: LLY), that product ads appearing on Internet search pages didn’t meet advertising requirements and FDA regulations. Some ads have been pulled and replaced with ads that don't mention the brand names of the drugs.

The Problem
The ads, which are limited to 95 characters by Google (Stock Quote: GOOG), “misbrand” the drugs and “fail to communicate any risk information associated with the use of these drugs,” according an FDA letter to one company.

Promotional materials are required to include risk information to qualify positive claims made about drugs.  By leaving out serious or common risks associated with the drugs, they may come off as more effective or safer than they really are, according to the agency. For example, an ad for Propecia, a treatment for hair loss, didn’t mention the fact that it’s not approved for the treatment of baldness in women or children.  Some ads also fail to note when a certain drug needs to be used in conjunction with another treatment.

No Simple Solution
One solution to the problem may actually be causing more confusion than clarity. Some drug companies are sponsoring ads that include web site URLs without a drug’s name. Those URLs then redirect to promotional web sites about the drug. For example, Biogen had a Google ad for Tysabri, its multiple sclerosis drug, which said, "Satisfied with your MS treatment or looking for something different?" and linked to Tysabri.com. Now, the link has been changed to read MyMSTreatment.com, but still directs users to Tysabri.com.

This poses at least two problems.  If a person seeking treatment for a specific condition doesn’t realize that the link will bring them to a pharmaceutical company web site, they may unknowingly read information that promotes a specific treatment rather than unbiased information about a disease.

In addition, drug makers themselves say this method, which technically helps them address the FDA’s complaints, doesn’t actually educate potential consumers about treatments before they click on links.

How the Ads Affect You
Direct-to-consumer drug advertising has been a contentious subject and the effectiveness of such ads has been questioned, but they are permissible as long as they sufficiently explain the pros and cons of the treatment.

Many consumers hear about treatments for a variety of diseases by way of TV commercials that feature happy couples and serene backdrops along with the inevitable fast-spoken lists of side effects. But because of space limitations, many online drug ads just include basic information about the conditions that are treated, and assume that readers will click on links to learn more. 

It’s also important to be aware that not all of the information on a specific treatment is necessarily disclosed. Company web sites, and medication package inserts list possible side effects, and the severe ones even receive prominent black box warnings, but potential long term effects may not have been determined yet.

If you’re considering treatments for a specific condition, do your research. When you’re reading about treatments online, note whether the information is provided or sponsored by drug companies or whether it comes from independent sources.


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