Watch for smiles in TV drug ads

We love smiles. They’re contagious. Just seeing someone else smile makes you feel better. But there are times when a smile is totally inappropriate. For example, you would not smile if a friend told you about a scary diagnosis. How about cancer?

That’s why it is so jarring to see dozens of smiles in television commercials for powerful cancer drugs. For example, there is an advertisement for a new medicine to treat metastatic breast cancer. Verzenio (abemaciclib) is promoted as “an everyday treatment for a relentless disease.”

When the announcer starts rapidly listing the side effects, we see women enjoying delightful family time. There are at least two dozen smiles during the following recital:

“Diarrhea is common, may be severe and may cause dehydration or infection. Before taking Verzenio, tell your doctor if you have fever, chills or other signs of infection.

“Verzenio may cause low white blood cell counts, which may cause serious infection that can lead to death.

“Serious liver problems can occur. Symptoms may include tiredness, loss of appetite, stomach pain and bleeding or bruising more easily than normal.

“Blood clots that can lead to death have also occurred. Talk to your doctor right away if you notice pain or swelling in your arms or legs, shortness of breath, chest pain or rapid breathing or heart rate.

“Tell your doctor if you are pregnant, breastfeeding or planning to become pregnant.

“Common side effects include nausea, infections, low red and white blood cells and platelets, decreased appetite, headache, abdominal pain, tiredness, vomiting and hair thinning or loss.”

We are not objecting to the long list of serious side effects. Everyone knows that cancer drugs can be very toxic. People should know about the risks before they ask their physicians to prescribe such a medicine.

What we are objecting to is the way in which these adverse reactions are presented. The rapid voice-over coupled with images of people having fun divert attention from the seriousness of the potential side effects. The frequent smiles take the sting out of the bad news.

A less serious condition is COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). A commercial for the inhaled medicine Trelegy (fluticasone furoate, umeclidinium and vilanterol) also shows people smiling. The catchy jingle featuring “1-2-3” is reminiscent of the No. 1 hit in 1970 by The Jackson 5.

Once again, the warnings and side effects are read while people on the screen are having a great time. There’s a birthday party, a walk in the park with dogs and a pleasant backyard scene with a paper airplane flying.

For people to really understand the potential risks of highly promoted prescription medications, the Food and Drug Administration should not allow ads to be so distracting. In an ideal world, side effects would run in print on the screen without any appealing images while the voice-over is read.

Until the FDA changes the rules, however, we suggest closing your eyes during drug ads. That way you can better focus on the important information rather than the amusing diversions that currently steal the scene. And if you have your eyes open and spot a smile, pay extra-close attention to the words. Chances are, the advertiser is trying to distract you.

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Teresa Graedon holds a doctorate in medical anthropology and is a nutrition expert. In their column, the Graedons answer letters from readers. Write to them in care of King Features, 628 Virginia Drive, Orlando, FL 32803, or email them via their website:

2018 King Features Syndicate

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