Herbs or Drugs?

A look at the pharmaceutical industry, drug advertising and herbal alternatives.

| January/February 2005

Consider your choices. People who pay attention to print and broadcast ads could be convinced that a prescription drug exists to cure any ill — even illnesses they didn’t realize they had. The same consumer might conclude that herbal medicines are worthless — or dangerous, if the knitted brow of the television news anchor is any indication: “A new study reveals St. John’s wort is no more effective than a placebo in treating depression.”

Most news anchors missed the revelation in that same study that the prescription drug Zoloft also was no more effective than a placebo. They also didn’t follow up to discover that the study itself is now on trial, its protocol questioned even by one of the scientists who helped initiate it.

Much larger concerns about pharmaceutical medicines growl and huff outside the studio door, but few members of the mainstream media seem able to tear themselves away from the party line (pharmaceutical drugs good, herbs weird) long enough to investigate.

The issue isn’t whether the best choice is synthetic pharmaceuticals or natural herbs — the answer to that question is as individual as the compounds and the illnesses being considered. The issue is why the American public can’t get its hands on enough well-researched, unbiased information to make informed choices.

In 1997, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided to allow pharmaceutical companies to advertise prescription drugs using their specific names and the conditions they treat. And the rush was on: In 2001, according to The New York Times, drug companies spent $19.1 billion on promotional campaigns, including $2.7 billion — yes, billion — for advertising aimed directly at you and me, not physicians. The article quoted a report from the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) stating that spending on consumer-directed advertising rose at a far greater rate than spending on drug research. In the future, we may not have many new treatments for disease, but we can count on lots of new, great-looking television and Internet ads. Stay tuned.

Advertising and Vioxx

The issue of drug advertising directly aimed at consumers was thrust into the news recently when Merck withdrew its arthritis painkiller Vioxx from the market, citing studies indicating a risk of heart attacks or strokes. Critics noted the role advertising and marketing played in the drug’s being widely prescribed to patients who might have done just as well with ibuprofen or other, less expensive over-the-counter remedies.

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