Drug advertisements annoying and possibly misleading

Sean Neill is a South African-born, British-trained anesthesiologist, who
recently relocated to Midwestern USA. He blogs regularly at OnMedica about his cross-cultural experience, frequently
pointing out oddities of American health care. 

Watching television in America takes some getting used to. Apart from the accent, it is strange to hear companies marketing drugs directly to the consumer. Not only do they sell their own brand, but they actively name and shame their competitors’ products. During a commercial break there may be two different brands of antihistamine telling you how bad the other is.

Direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA) is the promotion of prescription drugs through newspaper, magazine, television and internet marketing. Although the drug industry is mounting major campaigns to have DTCA allowed in Europe and Canada, the only two developed countries where it is currently legal are the U.S. and New Zealand.

Studies have shown that increases in DTCA have contributed to overall
increases in spending on both the advertised drug itself and on other
drugs that treat the same conditions. For example, one study of 64
drugs found a median increase in sales of $2.20 for every $1 spent on
DTCA. It has been reported that 10 of the leading 12 brand-name drugs
with DTCA campaigns have sales in excess of $1 billion annually.

DTCA may have some benefits for consumers. In 1999 and 2002 the FDA conducted two national telephone surveys which found that consumer ads prompted many patients to actively seek out newly available medical treatments for various (usually chronic) conditions and that patients had become increasingly motivated to ask better questions of their health care providers.

Recently the New England Journal of Medicine published an editorial, DTCA for PTCA — Crossing the Line in Consumer Health Education? This discusses whether advertisements for a new drug-eluting coronary stent present a "fair balance" of information about the risks and benefits. How are patients supposed to assimilate and evaluate this sort of technical information cramped into a 60 second emotive commercial?

Should this kind of advertising be allowed in the UK? Personally I don’t think so, but perhaps patients should be given the opportunity to choose a brand name instead of the cheapest generic.