Published on October 19, 2021

The View from my Seat

We’re watching more drug ads on television

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

Why am I seeing so many television commercials for prescription drugs?

And why do today’s drugs carry weird brand names like Dupixent, Rybelsus, Ozempic and Ocrevus, names that appear as if they were taken from a Scrabble game?

And why the barely audible mumbling at the end of these commercials?

As a paraplegic who takes my share of pills, I was curious. I did some research. Here is what I found:

Like many of you, because of the pandemic, I am staying home and watching more television. According to a report from eMarketing, television viewing went up in 2020 for the first time in 10 years. The trend is forecast to continue.

The pharmaceutical industry is capitalizing. In 2020, the industry spent $4.5 billion on national TV advertising. That was up from $3.79 billion the prior year.

The industry is not only spending more advertising dollars, but us older folks are the targets.

Because we are most likely to have a medical problem … and we still watch television. According to Nielsen, viewers are most likely to encounter drug ads on televised dramas and news shows, the favorites among seniors.

Televised ads, which once focused on generally nonfatal conditions like hay fever and acid reflux, have turned to more serious ailments like cardiology issues and cancer. That, of course, reflects the medical issues of older audiences.

Pharmaceutical ads are so pervasive today we forget that televised prescription drug commercials weren’t allowed until the 1980s and that the United States and New Zealand are the only countries where this type of direct-to-consumer advertising is completely legal.

It’s the job of the Food and Drug Administration to not only approve use of a drug but to sign off on a brand name and monitor its advertising.

When a drug is approved by the FDA, it is given a generic name assigned by an official body - the United States Adopted Names Council.

It is also given a brand name developed by the company requesting approval for the drug and identifies the drug as the exclusive property of that company.

In considering a brand name for approval, FDA regulators run tests to see how likely it is that a proposed name could be mistaken for an already existing drug with a similar-sounding name.

They also do handwriting tests to catch names that might look alike when scribbled out.

Because of this FDA requirement that all drug names look and sound unique, a new drug coming to market has less operating room. Hence, strange names.

R. John Fidelino, former marketing director of a consulting firm that helps bring drugs to market, says naming a drug can take up to five years.

The commercials you see on television may or may not have been reviewed by the FDA.

Many manufacturers voluntarily submit ads to the FDA for clearance, but that is not required. Generally, the FDA doesn’t review ads before we see them.

The FDA does have requirements, however. One of those is that the ad must include a summary of risks.

So, at the end of a commercial - if your hearing is really good and you are paying attention - you can often hear rapid-fire warnings about swelling, fever, muscle pain, unusual bruising, dizziness, blurry vision, rash, blisters, swollen tongue, weight gain, dehydration and even suicidal thoughts.

And death.

What you won’t see in an ad is the pricing.

A Trump administration proposal would have required pharmaceutical companies to include pricing in ads. The industry fought it, however, and a federal judge blocked the requirement one day before it was scheduled to take effect.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)