On Tuesday, November 19th, the American Medical Association (AMA) called for a ban on direct-to-consumer (DTC) TV advertisements for prescription drugs. The ads span a broad range of medical conditions, although the conditions that the drugs are intended to treat do not inflict many of these consumers.
For example, most people with toenail fungus have either talked to their doctor about their condition or are not bothered by any of the symptoms. Regardless, millions of the 2015 Super Bowl viewers watched a celebrity step out of a limo and heard Mario Lopez, Jr., television host and actor, highlight the need to fight 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 six reasons why the ban should be implemented ASAP:
- DTC 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. Consumers may conclude they may have a disease, and—as a result—demand the drugs to help them achieve the lifestyle they see on TV.
- The pharmaceutical industry increased ad spending by 21 percent in 2014 to $4.54 billion.1 The ads do not improve American health. Consumers know how to use the Internet and search for health-related web sites, such as WedMD, Cleveland Clinic, Mayo Clinic, and others. They can search on any symptom that they may have and find understandable information about diagnoses, treatments, side effects, and preventive measures. They can be well prepared to discuss treatment further with their doctor.
- 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. In addition, seniors may be led to worry unnecessarily about a condition they may not have.
- The AMA said that DTC 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 a number of ways and are heavily advertised, urging people to talk to their doctor. For many people, however, the lower cost drug is adequate and the new drugs can have unexpected side effects.
- 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 that consumers need to hear the message about new drugs directly from the manufacturers.
- The U.S. and New Zealand are the only two developed countries that allow DTC advertising of prescription drugs. Many European and Asian countries have excellent healthcare systems at a per capita cost 50 to 80 percent of what the U.S. spends. There are outcomes on average are equal or better than in the U.S. None of these countries allow TV ads for drugs.
Pharmaceutical research to create 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, politicians and policymakers are questioning if the returns are excessive. Congress has given the industry a blank check to set prices. Consequently, the AMA has called for review of industry merger and acquisition activity they believe may be anti-competitive, and called for the ban of DTC TV advertising.
- Cynthia Koons, "It's Like Viagra for Pharma Ads: Pfizer's $1.4 Billion Marketing Blitz," BloombergBusiness (2015), http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-03-30/pain-and-erectile-dysfunction-make-pfizer-biggest-in-drug-ads.
About the Dr. John R. Patrick
Dr. John R. Patrick is author of Health Attitude: Unraveling and Solving the Complexities of Healthcare. He is president of Attitude LLC and former Vice President of Internet Technology at IBM, where he worked for thirty-five years. In addition to holding a Doctorate in Healthcare Administration (DHA), Dr. Patrick has degrees in electrical engineering, management, and law. He has more than four decades of experience in business and ten years serving on the board of a hospital. Learn more about Dr. Patrick at healthattitude.org and connect with him on Twitter at @johnrpatrick.
Health Attitude is available online in print, Kindle, Audible, and Apple iTunes Audio Book formats.