Online drug ads struggle with fine print

Marketplace Staff Nov 12, 2009

Online drug ads struggle with fine print

Marketplace Staff Nov 12, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: Elsewhwere in Washington today, the Food and Drug Administration was worried about the fine print. The stuff like this that you hear when drug ads air on TV.

DRUG AD: Do not take Lunesta with alcohol. Call your doctor right away if after taking Lunesta, you walk, drive, eat, or engage in other activities while asleep. In rare cases…

Disclaimers like that work on TV and in print. But those ads, like everything else, are heading online. Right now, when it comes to online drug ads, the FDA hasn’t quite figured out what the rules are.

Marketplace’s Jeremy Hobson reports.

JEREMY HOBSON: The pharmaceutical industry wants to advertise everywhere it can. And on the Internet, companies can target consumers in ways they can’t on TV or in newspapers.

Still, Pfizer spokesman Ray Kerins says his company is taking it slow.

RAY KERINS: We are reluctant to jump in with both feet until we have proper guidelines and guidance on how to do it that, again, is most appropriate.

To give you an idea of how anxious the drug industry is to get some guidance from the FDA stat, consider the number 900. That’s how many people wanted to get into today’s hearing in a room that only holds 350. And the meeting’s not just about online advertising but also the rules about getting a message out on social-networking sites.

KERINS: You cannot ignore Twitter, you cannot ignore Facebook. So we’re going to be there.

But just listing all the warnings from that Lunesta ad you just heard would require a Tweetathon. So what to do? Some in the industry want to offer a link on ads that’ll take consumers to the fine print.

Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, says that’s not good enough.

JAMIE COURT: If drug companies are allowed to advertise in the Internet without disclosing side effects, because there just aren’t enough characters to completely disclose side effects. We’re going to see a lot more deaths and injuries from these side effects.

And Court says Internet advertising can be policed. Just slap a drug company with an eight-figure fine when they don’t disclose side effects, and they’ll comply, he says.

No word from the FDA on when any new regulations will be proposed.

In New York, I’m Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.