Today’s Weasel Words, Courtesy Of Big Pharma: “Have Happened”


Some time in the recent past a memo went out, and as a result virtually all the TV ads for new drugs now include the deliberately awkward and puzzling phrase, “have happened,” or sometimes “have occurred.” First the ad ends with all the possible side effects of the drug and what conditions make it dangerous. Then we hear the list of all the maladies the drug “can cause.” Last of all, we learn that other undesirable things like early onset dementia, a taste for human brains or the dreaded ass-fall-off syndrome “have happened.”

Wait, what? Have happened why? Tornadoes, plagues and firebombings have happened too: why are these things that have happened mentioned in the drug commercial?

Here’s why: the manufacturers are fighting lawsuits alleging that the drugs caused these things to happen, but the companies are arguing in defense that causation is uncertain. By using the vague, passive “have happened,” they aren’t conceding that the drugs caused the problem, but it will still claim in later law suits that the customer was warned, and thus assumed the risk.

It’s double talk, essentially, and deceit. You are warned, but by warning you we aren’t admitting that there is anything to be warned about.

I hate this stuff.

Just thought I’d mention it.

32 thoughts on “Today’s Weasel Words, Courtesy Of Big Pharma: “Have Happened”

  1. Jack, I am of the opinion that pharmaceutical sales add should be similar to those tombstone ads for securities. I think pharma should fund add telling people simply that if yo suffer from XYZ there are products available and to ask your doctor. That’s it. This will reduce the billions of dollars of unnecessary added costs and prevent me from having to hear about IBSD and other bowel problems every 15 minutes.

        • Actually, the stories I’ve heard from EMTs and ER pals are that after 4 hours, they’re in close to *excruciating* pain and it escalates really fast to even worse after hour 4. And that anything they can actually DO to alleviate the issue is even MORE painful and detrimental to future function. THAT doesn’t make it into the ads…

    • On a more serious note Chris, I’m with you regarding direct to consumer advertising of prescription drugs. There is simply no way that the average person sees an ad for Thinkstraightium and gets more than “Think something or other blah, blah, blah, be sure and ask your doctor for it.” Another very real problem is a patient doing well on a medication sees an ad on TV and after hearing the list of adverse effects just panics and quits taking it. Your example ad is perfect.

  2. I disagree. If something is a proven side-effect, it should be identified. If it is not proven, but merely suspected, should that NOT be disclosed. NO! Possible side-effects should be disclosed, even if unproven. Even if correlation does not equal causation, I might be interested, because causation surely implies correlation. This weasel language is how you do that.

  3. Personally, I long for the days before prescription drug ads were even allowed. I’m guessing the FCC made some kind of deal with the networks to allow for drug ads once they banned tobacco ads. Ugh.

    I’d put this “have occurred” language right up there with “an error in judgment” as a top ranking weasel word expression.

  4. Chiming in as somebody who scrutinises modern research protocols, “have happened” is quite literally correct. You could, for instance, run a trial for an antidiarrheal, and on day 1 someone gets the runs, and it gets reported to people like me under “have happened”, then researchers investigate, they discover the subject downed a bucket of raw oysters the night before, and everybody else at the table also got the runs, and it’s obviously food poisoning, but it would still “have happened”.

    It’s obviously not helpful in this case to inform a patient considering this medication of this side effect, but for a vast majority of side effects, nobody could say one way or the other, and (the current consensus is that) it is reasonable to tell people that, literally, some people took this medication and then reported these side effects, and nobody can say whether it was coincidence, but we thought you should know, so go talk to your doctor like we suggested.

    I agree, though, that “have happened” is not clear enough to communicate its intended en-face meaning to people not in the biz. It just adds to the absurdity of the tiny-print speed-talk spectacle that is pharmaceutical advertisement disclaimers.

  5. Quoting Bernadette from Big Bang Theory. “The world is full of things that could cause the rectum to bleed.”
    My favorite part of drug commercials is when the long list of side effects includes the same symptoms the drug is supposed to cure.

  6. I’m gearing up to sue Reckitt-Benckiser over a med that I was taking for about 8 years. It nearly killed me, and caused such horrible side-effects that it nearly destroyed my family and had me contemplating suicide. Of course, it’s a cash cow for the company and the shills that push it, so despite thousands of people complaining of the exact same side effects I was complaining about, they’re in full denial mode.

  7. It’s got to be a bit of irony for me, a non-lawyer, to defend the legal profession to you.

    I’m a technical guy. I’ve spent my entire career working in the electrical equipment industry. Products I design are used by industry and electric utilities. Poor design and / or misuse can main or kill. Arc flash burns are horrendous. It is a hell of a bad way to die.

    My employer is ethical, trying to minimize risk of physical harm. But we also have to minimize financial exposure. Over the years I’ve spent quite a bit of time with in house council to minimize our exposure, both during design and later when bad things do happen.

    I view it as ethical to be weasely to minimize our exposure to financial risk so long as our number one priority still is to make the product as safe as possible.

    • That’s what the small print is for. And Google. And campaigning for free referencing online to the single most longest biggest use-it-for-an-emergency-high-chair-when-your-in-laws-bring-their-two-year-old-along-unexpectedly book of what that every drug (that almost ever was) is all about: affectionately known as the PDR, the Physician’s Desk Reference. There’s a warning on your search engine about it – or their should be – and this what should limit all advertising about any new drug: “ is to be used only as a reference aid. It is not intended to be a substitute for the exercise of professional judgment.”

      And please, for the sake of their anger management, do not mention new drug X to your doctor. He knew about it when it was just a baby abstract in a grand journal.

      • . . . (cont’d) And he has samples of it, lots of samples left by the eagerest beavers in the world, drug company reps who know how to put a foot in his door, bend his ear, and make their speils (pronounced schpeelz) every day for a year, or until he reaches behind the desk for his shotgun. … And if he doesn’t know about it, it’s not common and you haven’t had that rare disease yet, so he’d have no reason to check out every drug that might possibly be a help to you in that case.

        Moreover, weasel words are the reverse of texting and both are equally dangerous to your mental health.

  8. My wife’s been tired of me complaining about this linguistic subterfuge. It strikes me like Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther asking this guy “Does your dog bite?” and when he goes to pet it it bites him. Sellers exclaims “I thought you said your dog didn’t bite?” and the guy says dryly “…that’s not my dog”

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