Statin advertisements linked with inappropriate prescribing

Here in the UK, pharmaceutical companies are not permitted to advertise directly to the consumer, but this is allowed in the US. I was interested to read recently a study which assessed the relationship between direct-to-consumer TV advertising for statins, and the diagnosis of ‘high’ cholesterol and statin use [1].

Ad exposure was associated with a significant (16-20 per cent) increase in the chances of someone being diagnosed with ‘high’ cholesterol. Exposure to TV ads was associated with a significant (16-22 per cent) increase in the chances that someone would end up taking a statin drug.

The idea that TV ads for statins may drive people to their doctors and increase statin prescriptions is not a surprise, I think. But what the research also showed was that these associations were primarily in individuals deemed to be at low risk of future ‘cardiac events’ like heart attacks. This is relevant because those to be at low risk are those least likely to benefit from statins.

The researchers responsible for this recent research conclude that: “This study provides new evidence that [direct-to-consumer advertising] may promote over-diagnosis of high cholesterol and over-treatment for populations where risks of statin use may outweigh potential benefits.”

Much of the rhetoric around the supposed benefits of statins comes from ‘hired hands’ in the form of what are known as ‘key opinion leaders’. Their support for statins can be ardent and unwavering even in the face of evidence to the contrary. For me, it’s nice to seem some researchers are prepared to question the appropriateness of widespread use of statins, particularly in individuals who are very unlikely to benefit but stand quite a decent chance of being harmed.


1. Niederdeppe J, et al. Direct-to-consumer television advertising exposure, diagnosis with high cholesterol, and statin use. J Gen Intern Med. 2013;28(7):886-93

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5 Responses to Statin advertisements linked with inappropriate prescribing

  1. Chris 28 June 2013 at 10:09 am #

    I tried to re-aquaint myself with the name of whoever it was that likened advertising and marketing to legalised fraud, but failed. Interests in advertising do rest heavily upon creating new markets for some innovative goods or service in tandem with championing the supposed benefits and downplaying the risks. Many of us have sold a used car or something, championed the working features and skipped over the faults.
    my quick search mighn’t have found the name or the quote but I did detect there is a resurgence in interest in the work of EF Schumacher, and in the times we’re in, that may not be a bad thing.

  2. Deane 28 June 2013 at 3:44 pm #

    I think its disgusting that we have so many RX drug ads on TV (and in news print media) but at least they are required to list the side effects. Regardless of the drug, the side effects sound like a laundry list of everything you NEVER want to experience and usually end with “death”. Yet people still ask their doctors for these drugs?!? I don’t get it!

  3. Bill Lagakos (@CaloriesProper) 29 June 2013 at 12:31 am #

    “This is relevant because those to be at low risk are those least likely to benefit from statins.”

    That certainly seems to be the case. Thoughts on the JUPITER trial? (eg, PMID 18997196 & 22883507).

  4. Paul 2 July 2013 at 8:20 am #

    Although in the UK, it is not legal to advertise drugs, it is legal to promote medicated foods.

    Until quite recently, a well known plant sterol margarine was being heavily promoted on the radio with the gravitas that a cholesterol ‘level’ of 5.1 was a virtual death sentence, and the only way to ‘cure’ yourself was to buy their margarine. (Snake oil salesmen springs to mind).

    The advertisements were clearly checked by solicitors as they were sailing very close to the wind. I would have complained to the ASA had they crossed that particular line.

    I haven’t heard the advert recently, so I guess somebody did complain and they were on thin ice – thinking about it, I suspect it was probably the statin manufacturers who complained, as the margarine makers were probably poaching their market.

  5. Archie Robertson 21 August 2013 at 7:27 am #

    To Chris: the relevant quote is from H G Wells: “Advertising is legalised lying”.

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