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Regulations on direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising?




A recent article published in the New York Times reported that spending on the advertising of brand-name prescription drugs on television has dropped by more than 20 percent in the last five years. According to figures provided by Nielsen, spending on these ads dropped 23 percent, down to $2.4 billion in 2011. This decline is in sharp contrast to the decade long drug industry advertising run that began in 1997, when the Food and Drug Administration loosened its regulations and allowed direct-to-consumer advertising of prescriptions on TV. Industry analysts attribute part of the decline to the controversy that has arisen surrounding the ads themselves.

Supporters of direct-to-consumer ads say they are a means of educating consumers and letting them know of medical advances in the field.  Many state researches that have shown that this type of advertising empowers patients by helping them identify their conditions, and therefore enabling them to take more responsibility for their health. In 2003, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University found that “these ads appear to affect patients’ behavior, resulting in more physician visits that detect treatable diseases”. More specifically the survey reported that of the 35 percent of the respondents who discussed these ads with their physicians, 25 percent received a new diagnosis; and nearly half of them involved high priority conditions like arthritis, diabetes, and high cholesterol.

However, critics of direct-to-consumer advertising state that these ads do exactly that they are intended to do – boost sales for drug companies, while doing nothing in the way of educating consumers. Studies of drug ads show that they tend to overemphasize the benefits of drugs while downplaying the risks, which suggests limited education potential. In addition, some say that they also promote medical conditions themselves, in addition to the drugs they are hoping to sell. Ads for prescription drugs touch on serious medical issues like heart disease to smaller ones like Restless Leg Syndrome. Essentially, if the industry can convince people that minor complaints require long-term drug treatment its market will grow and open up new markets. Bombarding the public with medications encourages rapid adoption of new products that may be no better, and in some cases even worse, then older unadvertised generic drugs.

Although a few of these ads may have some educational value, it would make much more sense for these ads to be regulated in some fashion or another. The United States and New Zealand are the only two countries where direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising is legal. According to a recent report by NYU, in 2004 pharmaceutical companies spent twice as much on advertising and promotion then they did on research and development. For these ads to increase the quality of discussions between doctors and patients they, like they way they increase sales, they would have to respond to an emboldened FDA, which would require companies to provide a much fairer depiction of risk and benefits in these ads. Even though this is clearly something within the FDA’s sphere of power, as long as Congress allocates to the FDA half the amount of money spent by pharmaceutical companies on direct-to-consumer advertising little is likely to change.