This Warning May Cause Severe Anxiety
Big Pharma has had many grand successes—from correcting erectile dysfunction to masking bald spots on the president’s head. But its TV commercials are starting to make me sick. Across the dial, but especially on cable news, it’s hard to avoid drug ads in which the dominant theme seems to be a risk of sudden death. Worse, if the prescription doesn’t kill you, there’s a chance you’ll simply kill yourself.
Consider Chantix, which calls itself “the #1 prescribed Rx quit-smoking aid.” Its commercials mention the usual side effects, such as weight gain. Then, while happy-go-lucky background images roll, the announcer also warns of “suicidal thoughts or actions.” Talk about a dilemma: Die from smoking, or kill yourself because you finally tried to quit.
This raises many vexing questions: How serious does a malady have to be to risk suicide while curing it? Why are so many drugs prompting this anyway? And why are the dire TV warnings always accompanied by gorgeous, happy people gardening, dancing or frolicking with cute dogs?
It was roughly 25 years ago that the Food and Drug Administration opened the floodgates for “product claim” drug ads aimed at consumers. Now companies spend more than $5 billion a year on them. The FDA’s rules say the ads must include a “major statement” of the drug’s risks, and “this presentation must be spoken.”
That has created lucrative gigs for voice-over announcers capable of mellifluously mentioning that, by the way, you might kill your cat or your neighbor, but don’t let it distract you from this footage of Hawaiian sunsets.
In 2003 I conducted an experiment on “Candid Camera” with a fictitious pill we called “Fabloxiline.” Our claim was that it strengthened fingernails, and we recruited a dozen or so college students to test the product.
Before they began treatment, our fake announcer, using his best Hawaiian-sunset voice, explained that side effects included “uncontrolled flatulence” as well as “decrease in weight or height.” No one cared. Who pays attention to that sort of verbal fine print?
A few years later Kristen Wiig did a Chantix ad spoof on “Saturday Night Live” in which she was warned about “a powerful, overwhelming desire to kill the person you love most.” Other side effects: “jazz hands” and “ Robert De Niro face.”
Did I mention I’ve been taking a wonder drug for 10 years whose warning includes a risk of death? My doctor put me on Enbrel with a brief chat about risks, but no mention of mortality, which is why I left his office happy and confident. Now the nightly ads are stressing me out. The FDA wants to warn patients considering new drugs, overlooking the frightening effect on millions of people already taking them.
Fact is, short-form TV ads are better suited to extolling, say, Pepsi than explaining the risks of powerful pharmaceuticals. Doctors complain they spend time fielding questions about TV warnings, and the American Medical Association has long lobbied against such ads. Perhaps the FDA should require a new warning about the side effects of too many drug commercials.
Mr. Funt is a writer and host of “Candid Camera.”