Final Analysis: Battling Drug Abuse

Would you like your Harvoni prepared al dente?
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
 
If this journalism thing doesn’t work out, I have a backup plan: helping the pharmaceutical industry come up with names for their new drugs. I’m supremely confident I can devise something as good as — maybe even better than — Harvoni and Entresto.
 
I know what you’re thinking. Weren’t Harvoni and Entresto a vaudeville magic act? Or maybe Harvoni is a pasta dish that sits in a buttery Entresto sauce redolent of Tuscany. Would you like a little Parmigiano-Reggiano on your Harvoni with Entresto, sir?
 
Actually, Harvoni is a drug — really two drugs in one — for treating hepatitis C. I know about Harvoni not because I have a compromised liver but because I tend to watch TV programming that targets people of a certain age who apparently require lots of medication. Entresto, another combo drug, treats heart failure. 
 
And therein lies the problem with brand names for drugs. They don’t sound like drugs because the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t want them to. The FDA requires pharmaceutical companies to come up with brand names that are easy to pronounce and, even more important, not “overly fanciful” or likely to cause confusion. And so we get Victoza, not to be confused with the name of a Mafia enforcer; Januvia and Trulicity, not to be confused with NFL cheerleaders; Taltz, not to be confused with the opposite of schmaltz; Trintellix, not to be confused with the megafirm resulting from the merger of AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint; and Viberzi, not to be confused with a hip new marketing campaign for the State of New Jersey.
 
Admirably, the FDA’s primary goal is to avoid what could be a deadly mixup. From 2000 to 2009, the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research received about 126,000 reports of medication error, some of them “directly related to the similar sound and appearance” of drug names, according to an FDA report. The common example cited is a pharmacist’s potentially mistaking a prescription for Celebrex, a painkiller, as a prescription for Celexa, an antidepressant. 
 
The problem with the FDA’s vigilant approach is that it doesn’t permit drug makers to hint at what the drug does or boast of its perceived superiority over a competitor’s product. That’s just silly. At the risk of having Vic Toza rearrange my kneecaps — hey, I take the Trump administration’s bullying seriously — let me say it’s high time the FDA rethought its approach to naming consumer pharmaceuticals. If you suffer from Hepatitis C, the doctor should just prescribe some Liver Lover or some Hepcat and be done with it. Instead of Viagra and Cialis for erectile dysfunction — I’m suggesting for a friend here — wouldn’t it be better to go with something called Full Salute or Man’s Best Friend? 
 
Right now, the FDA says no. Yet it occasionally approves prescriptions that clearly fly in the face of its own proscriptions. I mean, the name Viagra clearly hints at what it’s supposed to do. And you can’t tell me the “mov” in Movantik, which treats constipation, isn’t suggesting that it’ll help you, well, you know. 
 
It would be so much better if drug names simply cut to the chase. Need an antidepressant? Take some Sunny Time. Troubled by arthritis? Get some Happy Joints. Clarity in advertising shouldn’t suffer at the hands of bureaucratic cageyness. I get the FDA’s interest in safety. But calling a spade a spade still seems more reasonable than making a hepatitis cure sound like a plate of pasta. 
 
JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine. Reach him at john.levesque@tigeroak.com.
 

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