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 .
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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