Treats or tricks? Scary pharma ads, part 2

It’s almost Halloween! Time for costumes, spooky stories, candy, and… drug advertisements? If you’ve seen pharmaceutical ads lately (and who hasn’t?), you know that they often use scare tactics to sell their products. Last year for Halloween, we shared some fear-mongering ads that we found especially alarming. 

Unsurprisingly, the fear-mongering in pharma ads hasn’t abated, so this year we’re bringing you more (and scarier!) drug advertisements from this year. Get your flashlights ready…

The surprise heart attack

This commercial for Repatha, a cholesterol-lowering drug made by Amgen, sends the message that even if you eat healthily and take statins, if you have high LDL cholesterol a heart attack or stroke could come at any time. In other words, if you’re not afraid of having a heart attack, you should be. The answer to assuaging your fears, of course, is Repatha, because it lowers cholesterol and risk of heart attack or stroke.

Here’s what the ad doesn’t tell you: In a clinical trial, Repatha reduced the risk of cardiovascular events by 15%, but the absolute risk reduction was low. Of the people taking Repatha, 9.8% suffered a heart problem or stroke, compared to 11.3% of patients in the control group. Further, the trial did not show a significant difference in risk of death between those taking the drug and not taking it. 

The ad should say, “Repatha will lower your cholesterol and will slightly lower your chance of heart attack or stroke, but it hasn’t been proven to make you live longer.”

What’s around the corner…?

In this ad for Eliquis, an anticoagulant for treating blood clots, the protagonist is worried about whether another deep-vein thrombosis blood clot could be “just around the corner.” Fortunately, everything turns out okay in this ad, because she’s taking Eliquis, which the ad says is proven to treat and prevent certain types of blood clots.

My favorite part of the ad: “Almost 98% of patients on Eliquis didn’t experience another DVT/PE blood clot.” That’s true, but what they aren’t including in the ad is that almost 97% of patients taking a different anticoagulant also avoided major bleeding, according to a clinical trial comparing Eliquis to Warfarin

On shaky ground

This ad for Vraylar depicts a woman in a mania of online shopping who soon finds herself going out of control. But don’t fear — Vraylar for bipolar mania can help. Vraylar significantly reduces overall manic symptoms, the ad proclaims. In clinical trials, Vraylar reduced symptoms of acute mania compared to placebo, by what seems like an impressive amount (a difference of about 15 points on a 60-point scale, compared to placebo). 

But what the ad does not mention is that akathisia was a common side effect of Vraylar in the trials; almost one third of patients  taking Vraylar experienced akathisia in the trials. Akathisia is agitation or restlessness, the inability to sit still. Akathisia can be extremely agonizing and has been linked to violence and suicide, but akathisia is often not recognized as a side effect of medication. What’s scariest about this ad is that akathisia is not mentioned as a common side effect.

If you want to be scared this Halloween, treat yourself to a horror movie or haunted house. But don’t get tricked by pharma into being terrified of health conditions that only their drugs can cure.