Friday, November 6, 2009

Prescription Drug Ads Come to Canada

I saw something rather disturbing this evening: an ad talking about erectile dysfunction. Hardly an uncommon sight in itself - except this one was on a Canadian station. I believe it was CTV NewsChannel.

Unlike those endless, annoying American drug ads, this one didn't mention any specific drug - just informed the viewer that (apparently) 40% of men over 40 suffer from E.D. and referred them to a website: But when you go to the website and dig through the fine print, you discover that the whole thing is the work of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly - makers of Cialis, an E.D. drug.

The whole thing is pretty subtle. After you get through all the information about how common E.D. is and rate your tumescence with their handy self-diagnostic tool, you get to a chart detailing the pros and cons of the three major oral treatments - with Cialis listed first, of course, and highlighting the fact that it's the only one you can take once a day. There's also a chart of the considerably less appealing non-oral treatments such as 'vacuum therapy' and 'transurethral insert'.

Still, it all seems pretty balanced. Right?

The trouble is, Eli Lilly has pulled this before - in England. Like Canada and almost everywhere else in the world, the U.K. doesn't allow 'Direct-to-Consumer Advertising' (DTCA) for prescription drugs. Ever. So Eli Lilly tried to sneak these '40 Over 40' ads through as 'disease awareness' campaigns.

The British weren't buying it.

Eli Lilly is to be reprimanded by the UK pharmaceutical industry watchdog for “unbalanced” promotion of its anti-erectile dysfunction drug Cialis, in violation of ethical rules.

The Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority has ruled that the US-based company “brought discredit” on the industry through a marketing campaign on television, the internet and in brochures in GP surgeries in the UK.

It said the company had presented information on its medicine that failed to cite the side-effects or risks, and in a way that would have encouraged patients to seek a prescription for Cialis.

The judgment, triggered by an FT article highlighting the campaign, is to be released shortly and has been accepted by Eli Lilly, which stopped using the criticised aspects of its campaign last month.

Interestingly, the British version of the campaign was even more subtle than the Canadian version. Prohibited from naming the drugs in question, they were listed only as Product A, Product B and Product C. Of course, those anonymous products were identified by name in the brochures supplied to doctors' offices by the company.

Canadian law is a bit more lax than that, and has unfortunately been getting even more lenient in recent years. Despite years of lobbbying by both the pharmaceutical industry and Canadian broadcasters, no actual changes to the law have been made. However, loopholes in the Canada Food and Drugs Act have led to an increasingly broad interpretation, as pointed out in this Canadian Medical Association Journal article:

There are 3 types of prescription drug advertisements aimed at the public: product claim advertisements, which include both the product name and specific therapeutic claims; reminder advertisements, which provide the name of a product without stating its use; and help-seeking advertisements, which inform consumers of new but unspecified treatment options for diseases or conditions. All 3 forms of advertising are permitted in the United States. In Canada, although all 3 forms appear to contravene the Food and Drugs Act, reminder advertisements and help-seeking advertisements are now everyday events in broadcast and print advertising, with little or no regulatory response.

... In 1996, a policy statement that set out to define the boundary between information dissemination and advertising suggested that Health Canada was ready to relax its interpretation of the Act.4 It stated that Health Canada "recognizes the importance to the pharmaceutical industry and to the general public of being able to disseminate and access nonpromotional information regarding drugs for human use." The effect of this statement was tacit approval of help-seeking advertisements for serious diseases. A policy paper released in November 2000 suggested an even more liberalized reinterpretation of the Act.5 It explicitly stated that help-seeking and reminder advertisements, but not product claim advertisements, were legal.

I guess it's surprising that we haven't seen even more of these ads, although I'm sure with the uncertain future of health care profits in the U.S. and all the whining the Canadian broadcasters have been doing over their financial situation lately, the pressure will only increase to have even more American-style ads hitting a TV screen near you.

I must say, though - the elephant is pretty cute.

(for all the many reasons why Direct-to-Consumer prescription drugs ads are worse than annoying - and especially bad for women - there's some great information here.)


  1. CTV news channel. You must mean CTV Fox news. They are a laugh right from their producers to their newscasters. Partisan hacks the lot of them.CTV is suffering not getting Canadain news ads so they go across the border with a little help from their friend Harper and his royal kingdom of jokers, jesters and zombies all parroting the Reform Con lines.

  2. I have to say, as much as I dislike CTV, they just don't hold a candle to Fox - especially since Duffy left the fold.  Fox is so completely beyond the pale that even the Natty Post doesn't come close.

    Give them time.