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FDA bill stops short of drug-ad bans

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KAI RYSSDAL: Last night, the Senate passed a bill funding the Food and Drug Administration. The agency also got new powers to monitor drugs more carefully after they hit the market — that was the nub of the complaint about Vioxx three years ago.

But the bill didn’t go quite as far as some consumer advocates hoped when it comes to reining in drug ads. From Washington, Marketplace’s Steve Henn explains.

TV AD: Zoloft is not for everyone…

STEVE HENN: But apparently drug ads on TV are for everyone.

TV AD: Side effects may include dry mouth, insomnia, sexual-side effects, diarrhea, nausea and sleepiness.

When used correctly these ads are good for you, according to Jim Davidson, executive director of the Advertising Coalition.

JIM DAVIDSON: It’s just more information and more information is always better.

Merck spent more than $500 million advertising Vioxx. The painkiller became a blockbuster, before studies linked it to an increased risk of heart problems. David Vladek, a law professor at Georgetown University, blames Vioxx ads for exacerbating a public health crisis.

DAVID VLADEK: There were over 100 million prescriptions written for Vioxx in just a few years — these were the most heavily promoted drugs in recent memory.

The law passed last night gives the FDA new powers to fine drug makers for misleading ads, but won’t allow the FDA to ban advertising for new drugs, or force ads off the air. Broadcasters and advertisers like Jim Davidson beat that idea down, saying drug advertising was protected by the First Amendment.

DAVIDSON: It empowers consumers — it helps them have more informed conversations with their doctors, and improves the level of quality for the health care system.

Pharmaceutical companies spent $5.3 billion on advertising last year. And drug ads are among fastest growing segment of the marketing business. From Washington, I’m Steve Henn.

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