Pharmacology professor speaks out on the dangers of deceitful drug advertisements

The drug advertisements we encounter in our daily lives may be more misleading than we first thought.

According to UBC pharmacology professor Barbara Mintzes, companies will often advertise prescription drug products for results that are quite different from their intended uses.

Mintzes conducted her doctoral research on the effects of direct-to-consumer advertising on prescribing decision, which sparked her interest in studying the regulation of pharmaceutical advertising, particularly in Canada. In contrast to the U.S., direct advertising of prescription medicines to the public is banned to protect public health in Canada.

According to Mintzes, there are currently two types of ads for prescription medicines in Canada: ‘reminder ads’ that state the brand name but not what a medicine is used for and ‘disease-awareness ads’ that focus on a health problem and ask viewers or readers to ‘ask their doctor’ about an unnamed newly available treatment.

To further examine ads for prescription medicines in Canada, Mintzes and her team collected all complaints about Canadian ‘reminder’ and ‘disease-awareness’ advertising for prescription medicines from 2000 to 2011. The aim of the study, which was published in the International Journal of Risk and Safety and looked at a total of 10 cases with eight different drugs, was to examine Health Canada’s responses to the complaints.

“We found an astonishing degree of discordance between the aims of regulation, as expressed in the law, to protect public health and the way Health Canada regulates direct-to-consumer advertising,” said Mintzes.

Mintzes said that one of the weaknesses identified in the study centred around Health Canada’s failure to act on concerns about the promotion of pharmaceutical drugs for unapproved uses. Some of the examples that she mentioned included recent company campaigns that advertised Xenical, a drug used to treat obesity and heart disease, for weight loss, or Androgel, a testosterone gel used to treat hypogonadism, as a way to revive a relationship or have more energy.

“The current approach lacks teeth, accountability and transparency,” said Mintzes. “The agency appears to use a narrow technical approach, focusing on whether the company’s name is present for example, and not on whether the message in an ad is likely to lead to inappropriate and unsafe medicine use.”

According to Mintzes, one of her major concerns about such advertisement was that it could lead people to use pharmaceutical drugs incorrectly and, in doing so, cause serious damage to their health.

The study also showed that evidence of only one enforcement tool, negotiation with the company, was being used, without any sanctions or stepping up of enforcement when a company repeatedly violated the law or carried out advertising uses that could posed a clear and immediate risk to public health.

Mintzes also said that an accountable system of regulation requirements along with possible criminal prosecutions for repeat violations, may be necessary to help reduce the promotion of unapproved uses for pharmaceutical products in ads.

"This process should be fully open and transparent, so that the industry, media, professionals and the public can know if ads were judged to be illegal," said Mintzes.