Unsolved Mystery: Drug Commercials

Posted on June 17, 2010


I don’t watch much television, but when I do I’m always stunned by the number of commercials for different kinds of drugs. Where did all of these conditions and syndromes come from? And most surprising: how did I get so many of them? Dry eyes, heartburn, insomnia, back pain, fatigue, restless legs, overactive bladder. I watch the ads go by one after another and I think, yes, I have all of those! And so my next step is to ask my doctor if these medications are right for me. I’m going to see my doctor in three weeks just to ask him about the drugs. Currently, the list runs forty-seven pages, so he may have to cancel the rest of his appointments.

Adding to the confusion, the drugs all have side effects. I suppose that’s to be expected. But when I watch the commercials I notice there are many disclaimers at the end, and they get rattled off so quickly that they’re a little hard to follow. Did you know that if you tape the commercials and play them back in slow motion, you can actually hear the individual side effects? These may include shortness of breath, dizziness, headache, muscle ache, stomach pain, irritability, infection, rash, numbness, dry mouth, swelling, blood disorders, blindness, paralysis, heart attack, and stroke. For me, other than the irritability, all of those things would be brand new conditions.

The drugs designed to treat insomnia advise that they “may cause drowsiness.” I would think that would go without saying. But, of course, it goes beyond drowsiness. The disclaimers for Lunesta include this, taken directly from their website: Walking, eating, driving or engaging in other activities while asleep without remembering it the next day have been reported. (So you’ll finally get that good night’s sleep, but you may also be arrested for stealing a bus.)

Then there’s a drug called Yaz. I don’t think I ever saw the original commercial, but there’s a newer version that the FDA told the manufacturer to make in order to clear up any misunderstandings caused by the first. It features a woman talking a mile a minute while throwing out countless acronyms and making vague references to various conditions, side effects, and interactions. I’ve seen this second commercial about forty-seven times and I have NO IDEA what this woman is talking about. But I think it has something to do with pregnancy, so I’ve crossed it off my list.

The antidepressants warn that if you experience sudden thoughts of suicide you should stop taking the medicine. In other words, you’re depressed and the treatment might make you want to kill yourself. Isn’t this like buying a drink that makes you thirstier? Only much worse?

Some drugs have side effects that can kill you on their own. So they may get rid of your symptoms, but you’ll be dead. Certainly something to consider.

Here’s the real mystery for me. According to the commercials, before I start taking any of these pills, I’m supposed to tell my doctor if I have kidney or liver disease, high blood pressure, or a heart condition. I try to imagine going to my doctor for a prescription and he doesn’t know I have liver disease. In that case, I don’t need the drugs. I need a new doctor.