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When Have We Seen Enough TV Drug Ads?

Written: June 2015

The American Medical Association (AMA) has called for a ban on consumer TV advertisements for prescription drugs. Anyone with toenail fungus has either talked to their doctor about it or is not bothered by any symptoms. Regardless, millions of viewers of the Superbowl watched a celebrity step out of a limo and heard Mario Lopez, Jr., television host and actor, highlight the need to fight her toenail fungus. The ad has had more than 2,000 TV airings. The AMA, which represents more than 200,000 physicians in every state, said the growing proliferation of ads is driving demand for expensive drugs despite the availability of clinically effective and less costly alternatives. Here are my six reasons why the ban should be implemented ASAP.

  1. Direct to consumer advertising can create artificial demand. The people in the ads are professional actors and actresses. They know exactly how to create an image of certain lifestyles and illnesses. Watching the ads over and over can lead to psychosomatic effects in consumers. They may conclude they have a disease and demand their doctor prescribes the drugs which can help them achieve the lifestyle they see on TV.
  2. The pharmaceutical industry increased ad spending by 30 percent in the last two years to nearly $5 billion. The ads do not improve American health. Consumers know how to use the Internet and search the many excellent health-related web sites such as WebMD, the Cleveland Clinic, the Mayo Clinic, and many others. They can search on any symptom they may have and find understandable information about diagnoses, treatments, side effects, and preventive measures. They can be well prepared to discuss further with their doctor.
  3. The TV ads are inappropriate. They portray an image to children and young adults the only way to have a happy life in later years is to take drugs. Seniors may be led to worry unnecessarily about a condition they may not have.
  4. The AMA said direct-to-consumer advertising inflates demand for new and more expensive drugs, even when lower priced alternatives may be available and equally effective. For example, anticoagulants (blood thinners) are taken daily by more than two million people. The cost is typically $80 per month for the most common drug. The industry has created three new alternative drugs that cost $300 per month or more which are superior in several ways and are heavily advertised, urging people to talk to their doctor. For many people the lower cost drug is adequate, and the new drugs can have new side effects.
  5. The biggest problem in the American healthcare system is the high cost. The TV ads add to the cost. Taxpayers are subsidizing the cost of TV advertising because it is a tax-deductible expense. Many other expenses are not tax deductible because the IRS considers them unnecessary to the conduct of business. The pharmaceutical industry has convinced members of Congress consumers need to hear messages about new drugs directly from the manufacturers.
  6. The U.S. and New Zealand are the only two developed countries that allow direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs. Many European and Asian countries have excellent healthcare systems at a per capita cost 50-80% of what the U.S. spends. There outcomes on average are equal or better than in the U.S. Most developed countries in the world do not allow TV ads for drugs.

Most babies born in 1900 did not live past age 50. Our life expectancy today has risen to 79. Several factors have contributed to the increasing life span. Drugs created by the pharmaceutical industry have certainly had a positive effect. The industry has also created drugs which enable people crippled with arthritis and other diseases to be happy and productive.

Pharmaceutical research to create the wonder drugs is expensive and risky. Many drugs do not make it to the market. Profit creates the incentive to take the risks and the return on investment for the drug industry deserves to be above average. However, it has become disproportional. Congress has given the industry a blank check to set prices. Consequently, the AMA has called for review of the industry merger and acquisition activity, highlighting anticompetitive behavior, and the ban of direct-to-consumer TV advertising.

Now the question is whether the AMA recommendation will get implemented. The pharmaceutical and health products industry has more than 1,500 lobbyists and spends hundreds of millions of dollars per year on lobbying activities, far more than any other industry. The lobby convinced Congress to ban Medicare from negotiating the price of drugs. They have convinced Congress to give hundreds of millions of dollars in preferential treatment to individual drug companies. There are many lobbies; every industry has them. At times they do good things and prevent Congress from doing something dumb. In the case of pharmaceuticals, it is clear the lobby has a lock on Congress and causes them to act more for the benefit of the drug industry than for consumers. Many taxpayers struggle to pay the rapidly growing cost of drugs.

My reflections – 2022

This article was published in several healthcare-related magazines. I was interviewed on dozens of radio shows and on Fox Business TV a few months after the article was published. I hoped to get to the subject of direct-to-consumer advertising. No way. Fox Business is a major beneficiary of this advertising. You can find the TV interview with Maria Bartiromo here.

Fast forward seven years from when the article was published and consider what has changed. For healthcare consumers the changes have been even higher drug costs and more TV advertising. Congress has received millions to support their re-election campaigns and has done nothing to address the extraordinary cost of American healthcare.