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Con: Prescription drug ads provide useful info; banning them is censorship

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James Gattuso
August 8, 2009
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is addressing the question, Should Congress reimpose the ban on advertising prescription drugs on TV?

We’ve all seen the television commercials for prescription drugs that come on during your favorite show. Some—for certain maladies rarely discussed at the family dinner table—have become standard grist for late-night comics. But beyond the jokes, there’s a serious debate in Congress—where some are proposing that such ads be banned.


That would be a mistake. Despite the occasional cringe-inducing moment, the ads have helped millions of people get better medical treatment. This flow of information to patients and consumers should not be stopped.


Advertising for prescription drugs is nothing new. Pharmaceutical manufacturers have long intensely promoted their products. Consumers don’t see the vast majority of such efforts, which take the form of ads in professional journals and direct contact with physicians.


The consumer was brought into the equation relatively recently. It began with ads in consumer magazines and newspapers, and intensified after the FDA cleared the way for television advertising of prescription drugs in 1997. But even today, it’s easy to exaggerate the magnitude of such direct-to-consumer efforts.


Only 15 drugs, aimed at roughly six conditions, account for more than half of all TV drug ad spending. And contrary to what you might think, most of the conditions addressed are relatively common problems, with allergies and arthritis leading the list.


The FDA regulates the ads, requiring that the drawbacks as well as benefits of each medicine be disclosed. As important, patients still need a prescription to get the drugs they see advertised.


Despite the impression left by a few celebrity patients, doctors aren’t being stampeded by patients into prescribing drugs they’ve seen on TV. According to one study, when asked by patients for a specific advertised drug, doctors prescribe it less than 40 percent of the time. Another 20 percent of the time doctors actually prescribe a different drug—presumably one from a competitor of the advertising company.


The most important question, of course, is whether those patients who do get a prescription for an advertised drug really need it.


Critics assert that they do not, concluding that the advertising is a waste of health care dollars. Yet several studies—involving ones about drugs for depression and for high cholesterol levels among other things—indicate that, rather than pump up artificial demand, the ads help identify under-diagnosed and under-treated conditions.


The advertisements may provide indirect benefits to consumers—even when no drug is prescribed—by spurring awareness of potentially harmful conditions. As economist John Calfee puts it, “No one knows how many lives are saved by those cholesterol drug ads that rouse wives to pester their husbands to stick with the program.”


Ultimately, however, even the best studies cannot determine whether a particular treatment is beneficial for any given condition or specific patient. Such determinations, by necessity, need be made on a case-by-case basis. Yet, that in itself argues for current rules, which put patients—and their doctors—in charge, rather than regulators and politicians.


But, critics argue, the ads are not balanced—putting a falsely positive light on the advertised drugs. But, if that’s true, the best way to counter faulty information is with more information. The goal must be to ensure that flow of medical information provided to consumers is complete and accurate—not to stop that flow.


There is a role for regulation in the process. Drug makers have a responsibility to provide fair and accurate information about their products—and regulators should be vigilant in ensuring that those responsibilities are met.


But censorship is not the answer. Policymakers should focus on providing more light—by which informed decisions can be made—rather than keeping consumers in the dark, even if that does mean watching a few embarrassing commercials.


James Gattuso is senior research fellow in regulatory policy at The Heritage Foundation. Readers may write to the author in care of The Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; Web site: www.heritage.org.

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