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TV drug ads lull a tired nation to buy

Serene images send stressed-out millions for sleeping pills, while drugmakers count profits.

By Alisa Ulferts
Published March 25, 2007


Charles Sabbides admits he was seduced by the images.

A gentle moth gliding by as a woman's heavy eyelids close.

Well-rested puppies tumbling out of a basket, tails wagging, to greet the morning sun.

Flowers closing up for the night.

But when the Dunedin contractor tried the sleeping pills these images hawked, he found their effect to be as substantial as a dream that dissolves with the first light of dawn.

"I can't speak for others, but what they do for me, I think they're overrated," said Sabbides, 59, who has suffered from sleep apnea for years. "You get your hopes up, but there isn't a miracle pill."

Sabbides is a casualty of the sleeping pill wars. Drug companies are blanketing viewers with intense television advertising as they fight over the growing sleeping pill market.

Experts attribute the onslaught in advertising to a combination of an overworked, overstressed population and an industry playing to Americans' desire for a quick fix rather than lifestyle changes.

Pharmaceutical advertising jumped to $5.29-billion in 2006, according to research firm TNS Media Intelligence, 13.8 percent more than the $4.65-billion spent in 2005. As a result, Americans now see an average of 16 hours of drug commercials each year, according to one academic study.

Critics say the advertising is driving up health care costs by goosing demand. The drug industry says the ads empower patients to talk to their doctors about health problems, even when the drug advertised isn't the right solution.

Either way, with work pressures on the rise and fewer Americans taking the traditional two-week vacation each year, the country's chronic sleep deprivation - and fondness for sleeping aids - is expected only to increase. So are sales of the drugs.

"We work at home and we work at work. We don't leave work. People aren't vacationing as much," said Dr. Lisa Whims-Squires, a sleep specialist and medical director of the Morton Plant Mease Sleep Disorders Centers.

Too often, people work at the computer until just minutes before bedtime and then wonder why they can't fall asleep, Whims-Squires said. She allows those patients to use sleeping aids, but only as an adjunct to lifestyle changes that include no computer two hours before bedtime.

For many patients, changing the work and school demands that led to sleeplessness can't compete with the ease of taking a pill.

"And it's not just the adults. It's the kids," Whims-Squires said.

Overnight shift

Prescription drug commercials significantly increased in 1997, when the Food and Drug Administration relaxed its rules on advertising. Until then, a drug ad had to contain comprehensive information about dosing and side effects, which made TV advertising impractical.

After 1997, drug companies were permitted to mention only the most common side effects of a drug in an ad, as long as they directed consumers to a Web site, phone number or specific print ad to get the rest of the warnings and dosing directions.

Overnight, television became an ideal medium for drug marketing: Manufacturers could use sound, sight and atmosphere to sell a drug without weighing down an ad with too much disclosure about risk and side effects.

Not coincidentally, drug advertising grew steadily in the decade since the rules were relaxed. Sales increased as well.

From 2005 to 2006, sales of the five most popular sleeping aids rose from $2.7-billion to $3.5-billion, according to IMS Health, a health care information company. Some analysts predict the sleeping pill market could grow again by half in the next two to three years.

Breakthrough ad

The sleeping aid Rozerem provides one example of the power of advertising. The pill's makers launched an ad campaign last year featuring Abraham Lincoln, a beaver and what appears to be either an astronaut or a deep sea diver. The commercial has sparked considerable attention online in blogs and chat rooms as amateur dream analysts speculate on the characters' symbolism.

Freudian references aside, ad watchers agree the campaign has broken through the peaceful monotony of many sleeping pill ads. The proof is in the prescriptions: Takeda Pharmaceuticals, which makes Rozerem, saw sales of the drug jump from $13-million in 2005 to $76-million in 2006.

Critics say that's exactly why the FDA should more tightly regulate drug commercials or ban them altogether.

"Our point of view is that the purpose of direct-to-consumer advertising is to turn the consumer into an agent of the drug company," said Dr. Peter Lurie, deputy director of the health research arm of Public Citizen, an industry watchdog group.

An unrelated public health study released in January found that drug ads provide limited information about the cause of a disease or people at risk of getting it. Researchers said that the ads "show characters that have lost control over their social, emotional or physical lives without the medication" and that the ads minimize the benefits of lifestyle changes.

"The ads have limited educational value and may oversell the benefits of drugs in ways that might conflict with promoting population health," lead researcher Dominick Frosch of the University of California at Los Angeles, wrote in the Annals of Family Medicine.

The industry's trade group, the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America, says it adopted its own advertising guidelines between the time that the researchers analyzed the ads and released their report. The voluntary guidelines encourage companies to take a more educational approach in their ads, and the trade group has established an Office of Accountability, which group senior vice president Ken Johnson says welcomes comments from the public.

Furthermore, Johnson cites another survey by Prevention Magazine and Men's Health that found that 28-million patients talked to their doctor about a health condition for the first time after seeing an ad. And drug companies still spend about 10 times more researching and developing medicines - about $55-billion in 2006 - than they do advertising them.

"America's pharmaceutical research companies are committed to providing accurate, educational information to health care professionals and consumers about their medications," Johnson said. Consumer advertising "empowers patients, increasing people's awareness of diseases and available treatments," he added.

Sabbides, the Dunedin contractor who has tried sleeping pills with limited success, isn't so sure. He says he has been helped a great deal at the Morton Plant Mease Sleep Disorders Centers.

"What do I think of the commercials? I think, 'Oh, man, I can't wait to try this.' I think it will help. But then it doesn't."

Alisa Ulferts can be reached at or 727 892-2379. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.


By the numbers

$4.65-billion Amount of consumer advertising spent by the pharmaceutical industry in 2005

$5.29-billion Amount of consumer advertising spent by the pharmaceutical industry in 2006

$4.20 Amount of additional sales each $1 in advertising generates

16 Average number of hours of prescription drug advertising Americans see each year

Sources: TNS Media Intelligence, Kaiser Family Foundation, Journal of Health Communication


[Last modified March 24, 2007, 21:00:22]

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