(This is the first in a two-part blog. Read tomorrow when we look at how industry and other stakeholders weighed in.)

How clear does risk information need to be in direct-to-consumer drug ads? That’s the question the FDA is getting closer to answering as stakeholders weighed in this week on the agency’s proposed rules for presenting risk in broadcast ads.

Twenty-two organizations from the PAL Coalition and other supporting groups joined PAL in submitting comments that support the agency’s new proposal to make risk information clear, conspicuous, and neutral in TV ads. The groups also suggested the FDA require that risks be quantified in ads and that the overly-scientific talk be toned down to match the comprehension of the viewer who would have the most trouble understanding the ad.

Many of the provisions in this year’s proposed rule do reinforce the handling of risk information that FDA proposed in last year’s draft guidance. But they are clearer and more concrete, and would go further than the agency’s current standard of “fair balance,” in which drugmakers are only required to present risk as clearly as they present benefits. Specifically, the proposed rules would require that ads use everyday language that is easily readable when in writing and is presented slow enough and prominent enough, whether in writing or audio form, to be easily understood by a consumer viewing the ad. The FDA also proposed a rule that would ban any distracting sounds or images in broadcast prescription drug advertisements.

A step back on why all this matters: remember that the U.S. is one of only two countries that allows drugs to be advertised on TV at all (New Zealand is the other).  And it’s a relatively recent allowance—only in 1997 did the loosening of an FDA regulation about how the major statement about a drug is presented open the floodgates to the sleep butterflies, allergy bees, and PMS symptom balloons.

As was shown by the PAL cases on Vytorin-Zetia, Nexium, Vioxx and Ketek, those changes came with controversy and human costs. Rofecoxib, or Vioxx, was heavily advertised to consumers and physicians in its first year before it was pulled from market after being linked to between 35,200 to 52,800 deaths and 88,000 to 140,000 heart attacks in the US. This caused the Institute of Medicine and other experts to call for an end to DTCA for new drugs, whose side effects are often not known (or in Vioxx’s case, suppressed) until years after they appear on the market.

The link between DTCA and increased prescribing of newer, less-tested drugs has been well-documented, and policymakers, regulators and academics have all expressed concern that the FDA’s inability to regulate and oversee broadcast ads has put the public’s health at unnecessary risk.

But despite this concern and growing evidence that drug ads carry risks beyond the speed-read ones, drug companies came up short on proving public health benefits to their current ad style or offering new evidence-based ideas for presenting risk info in a clear and neutral way. We’ll take a look at what they said tomorrow. Short of all out banning DTCA, the FDA must determine the appropriate standards to best protect the public.

What else could the FDA do? In addition to offering support to the proposed rules, PAL suggested additional steps that could further enhance the clarity of ads and thus further protect consumers. PAL urged the FDA to address the widely-held myths that the FDA approves all TV ads, and that the government only lets drugs that are “really safe” be advertised on TV, by requiring a disclaimer that “FDA has not approved this ad” for all ads that have not been pre-approved, and including the adverse event hot-line “Medwatch” number in all TV ads.

Though PAL fully supports FDA’s increased vigilance in regulating prescription drug ads, we noted in our comments that there are far more new ads being produced than there are FDA staff members to review these ads. It’s a big imbalance, and though increased funding and staffing of the FDA would help, delayed warning letters that appear long after an ad-buy—such as this one on Lunesta –will probably still happen.

To address this issue, the FDA should start using their authority to fine drug companies for ads that violate FDA regulations. Though fining will not increase the speed at which the FDA is able to review ads, it could potentially increase pharma’s compliance with these regulations and exact a price from noncompliant companies, even if the ad in question is no longer being aired.

Thanks to all those groups joining our comments:

The Alliance for Retired Americans The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) The American Medical Student Association (AMSA) Breast Cancer Action California Alliance for Retired Americans (CARA) CALPIRG The Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups Connecticut Center for Patient Safety Connecticut Citizen Action Group Consumers Advancing Patient Safety (CAPS) Health Care for All IUOE Local 4 Funds Long Island Health Access Monitoring Project MASSPIRG New England Carpenters Health Fund National Legislative Association on Prescription Drug Prices (NLARx)VPIRG National Women’s Health Network Oregon Health Action Campaign Prescription Policy Choices TeamstersCare US PIRG

–Emily Cutrell, Prescription Access Litigation