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Pharma opera? Drug promotion on TV shows

Written by Diane Archer

In the category of “what will pharmaceutical companies think of next to market their high-priced drugs,” the answer could be drug promotion on TV shows. Once dubbed soap operas because soap companies supported these afternoon TV series, they might be called Pharma operas today.

Julia Belluz reports for Vox News that one company’s drug that treats a rare cancer appeared on General Hospital. We assume it paid for the product placement. Its marketing value is greater than an ad because TV viewers have no clue whether Pharma is behind the drug promotion and do not get a good sense of its side effects.

As Vinay Prasad and Sham Mailankody explain in this JAMA opinion piece, unlike with TV ads where the FDA requires warnings of side effects, there is no such requirement for TV shows, where the product promotion is considered “disease awareness.”

In the General Hospital show, one of the leading characters is diagnosed with a rare cancer, affecting just 2 in 100,000 people. No surprise, there is only one drug to treat this condition, and it costs a fortune. Prasad and Mailankody question the value of permitting “education” about this very rare cancer and its treatment.

In their JAMA piece, they explain that direct-to-consumer advertising, which only the U.S. and New Zealand permit, has no proven public health benefit. Moreover, direct-to-consumer advertising has “suggestive evidence of harm.” It can lead to an increase in people being tested and misdiagnosed for the disease the drug treats and more people taking a toxic drug they don’t need.

Prasad further explains that over-diagnosis can happen because there generally isn’t one test to determine whether a person has the disease, and many healthy people could be deemed to have an indication for the disease, even when they don’t have the disease. If they end up being treated, on top of the cost, the side effects can be serious, including severe anemia, enhanced likelihood of TB and viral infections.

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