Americans are known for our short memories, so it may surprise you to know that prescription drug ads aimed at consumers are a relatively new phenomenon. They’ve only been around in present form for a little over a decade, when the FDA, under pressure from the pharmaceutical industry, approved the practice. Now, it’s hard to watch TV or pick up a magazine without seeing a drug commercial.
You might also be unaware that the U.S. is one of only two countries in the world that permit this kind of advertising. The other is New Zealand.
There are a number of reasons why most doctors and health experts think direct-to-consumer advertising is a bad idea. Here are a few:
- Prescription drugs are not like most consumer products. They can cause serious harm, even death.
- Advertising is not the same as education.
- Advertising pushes the newest medicines because they’re the big money makers. Most new drugs are no safer or more effective than existing drugs, and little is known about rare or long-term risks.
- Advertising of medicine turns normal life into a medical problem.
- Advertising drives up health care costs.
Let’s focus on that last point. The prescription drug prices in the U.S. has gone up sharply since 1997, when consumer ads were approved — about three times the rate of inflation. Pharmaceutical companies are spending more than $3 billion annually on DTC advertising; these are costs that you, along with others who buy these drugs, ultimately must bear.
The irony is, a new study shows that this $3 billion may simply be wasted money. From Reuters:
Expensive advertising of prescription drugs directly to consumers may do little to encourage sales, U.S. and Canadian researchers reported on Monday … They said that even though companies spent an estimated $3 billion in 2005 on such ads in the United States, they did not appear to result in more prescriptions…
“People tend to think that if direct-to-consumer advertising wasn’t effective, pharma wouldn’t be doing it,” Harvard Medical School’s Stephen Soumerai said in a statement. “But as it turns out, decisions to market directly to consumers are based on scant data.”…
Pharmaceuticals are not typical consumer products, Soumerai said.
“A person needs to see an ad, get motivated by that ad, contact their doctor for an appointment, show up at the appointment, communicate both the condition and the drug to the doctor, convince the doctor that this drug is preferable to other alternatives, then actually go out and fill the prescription,” he said.
“This is a chain of events that can break at any point.”
The nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation has come to similar conclusions in reports on direct-to-consumer ads.
If the study’s results are accurate, this suggests that some of the other concerns raised about DTC advertising are not as troublesome. Unfortunately, it also suggests that pharmaceutical ads are a financial black hole in the middle of our healthcare system — and a big reason that the costs of care continue to outweigh the benefits we receive.