Big Pharma’s big money buys supporters, while ban proponents emboldened
A November 2015 article titled “Understanding the Side Effects: Two Takes on Banning TV Prescription Drug Ads,” published on WPR.com (Wisconsin Public Radio), describes the debate over whether prescription drugs should be advertised on television. According to the website, the sides are “arguing over whether the ads offer information to benefit the public or add pressure to doctors to prescribe unnecessarily.”
The piece also noted that the American Medical Association voted earlier in the month to advocate for a ban of prescription drug and medical device advertisements on TV, arguing that such ads inflate demand for, and cost of, pharmaceuticals. “Members of the pharmaceutical industry argue that advertising offers consumers scientifically accurate information about common health conditions and treatment options that they can then discuss with their doctors,” said WPR.
Notice that advocates of the ads lump together “common health conditions” and “treatment options” as if one information set could not possibly exist without the other, while implying that they provide a public service by “getting the ball rolling.” The opposite is true. Pharmaceutical ads encourage self-diagnosis, and it’s the job of both patient and doctor to investigate and discuss conditions and treatments without interference from a party interested in gaining the greatest number of consumers for their product.
A senior director at the Pharmaceutical Research and Drug Manufacturers of America, an industry group, told WPR that “drug ads could open a door to conversations between patients and physicians, and in most cases, patients aren’t prescribed the advertised drug at the end of a doctor’s visit.” Of course, that’s little more than boilerplate verbiage from a paid endorser.
He also inadvertently admitted that, ideally, pharma companies would make patient diagnoses. “We want to make sure we’re diagnosing people with chronic diseases earlier,” he said.
“(One benefit) is for the patient to see an ad and think to talk to their doctor about symptoms that may ultimately be depression or another medical condition.” Never mind talking to family and friends about how you feel!
But the founder of consumer organization Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, told the radio station that the same benefit could be obtained with public service announcements not promoting specific products.
“There’s a big distinction between a general topic, go and have your blood pressure checked, and promoting a specific drug,” he said.
Drug-specific promotions, he said, are far less likely to be accurate because of the pressures on companies to sell their products. He pointed WPR to recent examples of drug ads being pulled because of inaccurate claims, such as an ad for GlaxoSmithKline’s prostate drug Avodart, which claimed that it would reduce how often men might need to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.
“There’s no evidence for that whatsoever, and yet this ad is designed to sell more of this drug,” he said. “The best way to sell a drug is to overstate its benefits.”
The consumer advocate also agreed with the AMA that drug ads, which companies spent $4.5 billion on in 2013 according to WPR.org, increased costs.