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Commentary | VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES

Modern Traveling Medicine Shows

June 25, 2005|G. Lloyd Helm | G. Lloyd Helm lives in Lancaster.

Back 150 years ago, groups of people used to travel around in wagons and present shows to draw crowds that could then be sold various patent medicines -- mostly quack drugs at the time. If one was lucky, the show was pretty good and the medicine was at least not harmful, and therein lay the rub. Some of their patent medicines were sometimes found to do more harm than good. So the big foot of government came down, and the shows disappeared. But it looks as though the medicine shows have triumphed at last. Just consider what the modern drug companies are doing.

I was watching TV when a commercial came on with Della Reese and others singing and talking about how wonderful this drug was, just like the old medicine shows. But at the end of the commercial, I still didn't know what this wonder stuff did. We're left with the impression that the drug was a cure for everything. The difference between today's medicine shows and the old wagon ones is that you can't buy the advertised product because you need a prescription.

So why are the drug companies wasting my time with these inane TV commercials? This trend to advertise prescription drugs on TV is a fairly new thing. Why are we seeing them now? The drug manufacturers, whose products are already prohibitively expensive, are spending millions to advertise products that we can't buy without a doctor's order. Do they expect us to go to our doctors and say "Hey, Doc, I saw this ad on the TV and I think I need to take some of that stuff"? That's exactly what they want us to do. But if the doctor is worth the price of the ink on his diploma, he will snort in derision as he goes about the business of keeping his patient healthy.

So why don't the drug manufacturers save all that money they are pouring down the Madison Avenue rathole and cut the price of the drugs, or better yet, use those millions to make sure their medicines are safe? And why isn't the Food and Drug Administration doing its job to ensure that these new medicines at least do no harm?

Vioxx was one of those wonder drugs advertised on TV, and what did that gain us? Turns out the stuff was not only not a wonder drug, it was not effective for what it was advertised for, and it was dangerous besides. Now there are several other drugs that are deemed ineffective or dangerous, or both.

Our tax money keeps the FDA in business, but somehow that agency has ended up in the pocket of the drug companies. It is supposed to work for us. Why isn't the FDA the absolute bane of the drug companies?

What are we going to do about this? Maybe we should demand the return of the traveling medicine show. At least with them you knew you were taking your life in your hands if you bought the medicine.

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