If a drug company set out to market a miracle pill to insecure young women, it couldn’t do better than the strategy Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical has come up with. In multipage advertisements appearing in magazines such as Glamour and Shape, Ortho uses close-up photos of gorgeous models to plug its Ortho Tri-Cyclen birth control pill as a “beauty aid” for “women 15 and over.” One ad calls it “the first pill proven to control blemishes as well as prevent pregnancy.” Oh, that.
A double-blind controlled study commissioned by Ortho found that its drug improved acne in 80 percent of users, and last year Ortho became the first drug company to gain approval from the Food and Drug Administration to market a birth control pill as a hormonal treatment for moderate acne.
Should dermatologists be prescribing birth control pills? Dr. Seth Matarasso, a San Francisco dermatologist, says his young female patients who have seen the Ortho Tri-Cyclen ads routinely ask him about the drug as an acne treatment. However, he is not quick to prescribe it to his patients. “Where do birth control pills fit in? For me, they’re almost a fallback,” Matarasso says, noting that he tries topical regimens, antibacterials, and even the prescription drug Accutane—which has serious side effects—before he’ll prescribe the Pill. “I would not put a 15-year-old on any systemic medication without having a frank discussion with her, her gynecologist, and her parents.”
Despite the fact that the ad campaign targets anxious teens—who may not understand the potential dangers and side effects of birth control pills—the ads have caused little controversy among doctors.
“Some people say facetiously that we should have all women on birth control from age 15 to 50,” says Dr. Elena Gates, chief OB-GYN at the University of California’s Mount Zion Medical Center. Gates calls Ortho Tri-Cyclen a prime example of “a good new drug,” but she acknowledges, “You need to be cautious that advertisers aren’t creating a need where one doesn’t exist.”