Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Better Labels

It looks like the Food and Drug Administration may actually return to doing its job: regulating food and drugs. One place that would be helpful is in regulating direct-to-patient drug advertising and drug labeling, according to this article in the Los Angeles Times.

Studies have shown that when consumers are given accurate and plainly written information about drugs, they make better choices. Unfortunately, that's not in PHARMA's best interests, so getting that kind of information has not been easy.

For years, American consumers have been bombarded with overhyped advertising for prescription drugs. On average, they spend more time watching drug ads on TV -- 16 hours a year -- than talking with their primary care doctors.

The ads are often misleading. By ambiguously defining who might need or benefit from the products advertised, they focus "on convincing people that they may be at risk for a wide array of health conditions" rather than genuinely educating consumers, concluded a 2007 study in the Annals of Family Medicine. ...

"The risks are often buried in a sea of unintelligible tiny print and benefits are often overstated, so it's hard for both doctors and patients to make informed risk assessments," says Dr. Jerry Avorn, chief of the division of pharmacoepidemiology at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

A new tool to offset the commercial hype and the tiny print is a simple concept known as "the fact box." Written in plain English and included with each ad and with each prescription, the fact box does what its name implies: provides facts about the specific drug, including what the risk for side effects is and what those side effects are, as well as what the actual benefits of the drug are. The drug box would operate much like the nutrition information boxes on food labels.

The FDA is considering whether to require fact boxes, but there's sure to be resistance from the drug makers who have a much better budget to work with:

...drug companies spent about $5 billion on direct-to-consumer advertising in 2007, more than twice the total FDA budget.

Still, at least the FDA is taking a look, and that's a definite improvement over how the agency has been operating for the past decade or so. Now, with health costs spiralling out of control and the debate on access to health care in full force, something as simple and as useful as better labeling just might be one smart way to get some of the expensive out of medicine.

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