Moody? Achy? Got high cholesterol? Watch TV and you’re apt to see a commercial pitching just the drug to cure what ails you—albeit with a long list of side effects. Drug companies, which spent some $ 3 billion in 2013 on ads, say that they educate consumers. But a 2013 review found that more than half were potentially misleading and that 10 percent were out-and-out false. Here are ads for Cymbalta, Crestor, Humira, and AndroGel that highlight some of the problems. If you see other ads that you think are misleading, report them to the Food and Drug Administration at 855-792-2323 or BadAd@fda.gov.
The drug: Cymbalta (duloxetine). 2012 sales: $ 4.7 billion
The ad: Men and women with arthritis or low-back pain are told that Cymbalta, a non-narcotic pain reliever, can help.
CR cautions: There are better solutions for pain than that drug, which has also been approved for several other conditions, including fibromyalgia, diabetic neuropathy, depression, and anxiety. But a 2011 review concluded that its superiority over a placebo for low-back pain and osteoarthritis “appears to be modest at best.” And as an antidepressant, Cymbalta was rated “an expensive, brand-name drug that’s no more effective than other, less expensive antidepressants” by our Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs project.
The drug: Crestor (rosuvastatin). 2012 sales: $ 5.1 billion
The ad: A doctor describes the dangers of LDL (bad) cholesterol plus other risk factors in contributing to plaque buildup in arteries. He says that in a clinical trial, Crestor helped more high-risk patients get their LDL below 100 than Lipitor (atorvastatin) did.
CR cautions: Most people don’t need a statin that strong or expensive. At high doses, Crestor can reduce LDL more than other statins. But the evidence that it prevents more heart attacks and deaths than other safer and less expensive statins is weak. Our experts say that most people should start with generic lovastatin, simvastatin, or atorvastatin. They cost $ 75 to $ 100 a month, on average, vs. $ 175 for Crestor.
The drug: Humira (adalimumab). 2012 sales: $ 4.6 billion
The ad: A woman is embarrassed by her psoriasis when visiting a new hair stylist. She asks her dermatologist about Humira, and then is shown enjoying more comfortable trips to the beauty salon.
CR cautions: That extremely expensive medication can cause severe side effects. (Humira is an injectable drug that interferes with the body’s immune system.) A month’s prescription runs $ 2,600 to $ 5,300, and it can cause rare but serious side effects including allergic reactions and an increased risk of tuberculosis and other severe infections. Not quite the walk in the park (or day in the salon) that the ads suggest.
The drug: AndroGel (testosterone). 2012 sales: $ 1.4 billion
The ad: A middle-aged man in a Mustang describes his relief when a doctor says that his moodiness and low energy can be treated with testosterone.
CR cautions: The ad suggests that “low T” is far more common than really is. Testosterone does dip with age, and that might affect libido. But so can depression, obesity, and other more common problems. Men should get tested only if they have a loss of body hair or muscle mass, testicular shrinkage, or other clear symptoms. Even if levels are low, think twice about taking the hormone, which can cause heart attacks, blood clots, sleep apnea, prostate enlargement, and painful breasts.
Source for drug prices: IMS Health, a global information and technology services company.
This article also appeared in the May 2014 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.
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