The Seven Year Rule

Newer drugs are not necessarily better drugs

A few days ago at the gym, I was leafing through an issue of Health magazine.

What caught my eye was not the article about preventing stress injuries, or the recipe for a zingy, low-fat curry, but rather the pages devoted to ads for prescription drugs. Drugs to treat psoriasis, hepatitis C, dry eyes, depression, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, arthritis, and overactive bladder, to name but a few.

Each ad took three pages. After doing a little mental math, I discovered the ads for these new prescription drugs made up more than 30% of the magazine’s content.

I’m surprised it’s called Health magazine!

Drugs ads are just as omnipresent on TV, and I’ve often expressed my opinion that thesethe seven year rule direct-to-consumer ads should be banished from the airwaves.

Unlike cars or TVs, newer does not necessarily mean better. And it certainly doesn’t mean cheaper!

The drug industry is booming, and more new drugs are coming to the market than ever before. The problem is that these drugs are tested on relatively few people. It’s not until they are prescribed to lots of people of different ages, with different health conditions, and taking different medications, that many of the side effects and bad reactions become widely known.

In other words, think of yourself as a guinea pig.

Related post: Protect yourself from new drugs

Remember Vioxx (rofecoxib)? A wildly popular—and extensively and expensively advertised—pain reliever, it made billions of dollars for Merck Pharmaceuticals.

It also, by conservative estimate, contributed to 60,000 deaths during the 5 years it was on the market. And it wasn’t even much better at relieving pain!

Vioxx became the poster child for bad drugs, but it is certainly not the only prescription medication that has followed a similar course. 

New drugs are launched with multi-million dollar ad campaigns that encourage as many physicians and patients as possible to write or ask for a prescription. 

And it works. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine reported that “approximately 4 of 10 physicians report that they sometimes or often prescribe a brand-name drug to a patient when a generic is available because the patient wanted it.”

According to the National Academy of Medicine, however, “It is a widely held misperception that FDA approval of a new drug denotes a guarantee of safety and certainty about its risk-benefit profile.”

In other words, take it at your own risk.

The Seven Year Rule

I like the “Seven Year Rule” advocated by, the drug safety arm of Public Citizen, a national research-based consumer advocacy organization in Washington, DC.

Public Citizen’s director, Dr. Sidney Wolfe, says “To take a drug in the first seven years it’s on the market is really to be a participant in an experiment.”

Since 2002, Public Citizen’s Health Research Group has recommended:

You should wait at least seven years from the date of release to take any new drug unless it is one of those rare ‘breakthrough’ drugs that offers you a documented therapeutic advantage over older proven drugs. New drugs are tested in a relatively small number of people before being released, and serious adverse effects or life-threatening drug interactions may not be detected until the new drug has been taken by hundreds of thousands of people. A number of new drugs have been withdrawn within their first seven years after release. Also, warnings about serious new adverse reactions have been added to the labeling of a number of drugs, or new drug interactions have been detected, usually within the first seven years after a drug’s release.

Ignore the over-promises of the commercials. Don’t automatically demand the newest drug on the market. Have a conversation with your physician about which older and cheaper drugs are available—drugs with a proven track record of safety and effectiveness.

For more information on prescription drugs, I like the website Informulary. Started by two physicians who recognized a need for better drug information (not biased by Big Pharma’s marketing claims), Informulary offers patients an easy-to-use tool to find out what “medicines can and can’t do.”

Always keep in mind that pharmaceutical companies are not in business to improve your health; their single intention is to make a profit for their shareholders.


Frugal Nurse

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