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I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of drug companies advertising their wares on TV. You know the commercials I’m talking about: They always end with some variation on the phrase, “Ask your doctor if ___________ is right for you!” sometime after the fast-talking narrator zips through the multiple side effects of the pill. I have no numbers to back this up, but it’s hard to believe that these marketing campaigns don’t have a major impact on the cost and quality of healthcare in this country.

I’m not alone in this complaint. Critics argue that these ads increase costs, misinform patients, overemphasize drug benefits, promote new drugs before adequate testing has been completed, encourage drug over-utilization, and lead to inappropriate prescribing.

The federal government has generally observed a hands-off policy on these ads, citing free speech issues, and essentially allowed Big Pharma to regulate itself. Unfortunately, some drug marketers don’t self-regulate very well.

Since 2006, Americans have been inundated with nearly 100,000 TV spots heralding the various benefits of Viagra and other drugs designed to, shall we say, enhance the vitality of aging males. And, according to a study released last week by Denis Arnold, associate professor of management at UNC Charlotte, and Jim Oakley, associate professor of marketing at Montana State University, the three companies marketing these drugs violated several of the “PhRMA Guiding Principles” introduced in 2005 by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

Arnold and Oakley found that these principles were largely ignored, despite the fact that the companies had all certified their compliance. Specifically, the ad campaigns failed to provide clear and understandable patient information; presented the drugs as the most appropriate first-stage treatment option, despite known side-effects; and failed to offer alternative treatment options.

“Cumulatively, our data shows that ED marketing campaigns fail to responsibly educate consumers about health conditions and appropriate treatments,” Arnold explained in a press release. “Instead of facilitating a balancing of interests between company profits and public health, the illusion of industry self-regulation is primarily serving the interest of the pharmaceutical companies at the expense of the public’s interest in genuine health education and welfare.”

And just as a little FYI to the rest of you old guys out there: There are plenty of alternatives to Viagra and its variations. Lay off the booze before bedtime, get some exercise every day, quit smoking, check your other meds (they may be contributing to the problem), and do what you can to reduce your stress. You might start by turning off the tube.

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