Ban drug ads from TV again

In a move that received little news coverage, and consequently was mostly ignored except in business circles, the American Medical Association in November approved a resolution that seeks a ban on direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs and medical devices in the United States — in other words, getting rid of all those prescription drug ads on TV, magazines and radio. New Zealand is the only other country that allows such ads.

Congress, which years ago gave the OK for such ads, is the body that can ban them. That being the case, the little plea from the small doctors’ lobbyist group, will never be heard over the lobbying roar of the pharmaceutical companies, which, for example, spent more than $3.2 billion on lobbying activities from 1998 through 2015, OpenSecrets.org reports. And that’s just the lobbying. U.S. drug companies spend $4.5 billion a year selling their products, according to marketing research, and that figure has increased in the past couple years. At the same time, the Washington Post reports, prescription drug prices rose nearly 5 percent in 2015.

The AMA argues that such ads drive a demand for expensive pills and medicines when less costly generic drugs are just as effective, and also create a demand for new and more expensive drugs, even when these drugs may not be appropriate, such as the patient’s need or a medication’s efficacy for the condition.

Denise Kinney, of Gig Harbor, has started a petition on Change.org urging Congress to follow the AMA’s request. Kinney cites a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Health Foundation that found that 89 percent of respondents want the FDA to review prescription ads before they run, which by federal law the FDA cannot do; it must rely solely on consumer complaints after the fact. (Almost as ubiquitous as the drug ads are the ads from lawyers who want to help you sue, or your family sue, if you have died, over prescribed “bad drugs” or medical devices that have been pulled from use, or are still in use.)

Advertising groups and drug companies don’t believe that the ads cause the problems that the AMA and others say they do, including higher prices, although such increases have been documented, whether directly or indirectly related to the ads. Advertisers and drug companies invoke the First Amendment for their right to advertise, and like to say that the drug commercials are a font of medical information about new treatments for various potentially serious or life-threatening diseases, which people can then “talk to their doctors about.”

But these are ads, remember. The medical information provided is not vetted, or straightforward.

Seth D. Ginsberg, writing in U.S. News and Consumer Reports, suggests that rather than eliminating the ads, the format should be changed to make them as educational as the drug makers say they are. For example, “shouldn’t we have side-effect information that tells us not that we could die, but what the chances of death are?” Ginsberg asks. “… Patients deserve to have quantitative information about the expected risks and benefits of their treatments, ideally based on evidence derived from the experience of people like them. Drug ads don’t tell them this.”

The problem with reworking the format to foster better communication is that the drug ads will always be ads. People will always be thought of as “consumers,” not people or patients. And “consumers,” by definition, need to be sold something. Prescription drugs, all of which have potentially dangerous side effects, aren’t meant to be advertised and sold like other consumer goods. You’ll never see an ad urging you to get a polio vaccine because no one makes money from it. Meanwhile, health officials are concerned that the rates for girls and boys getting the HPV vaccine remain low. Many reasons factor into the low rate, and perhaps one is that two competing vaccines are marketed with brands names and advertised on TV and other platforms, by two of the biggest drug companies, Merck and GlaxoSmithKline. A marketing campaign, rather than a neutral, educational one, might make some people wonder if the drug companies have their children’s best interest at heart.

People who want and need real medical information, and unbiased information about medicines, don’t get them from prescription drug ads. The information is biased by definition.

Sign the petition, or contact your representatives in Congress. It’s time to eradicate the drug ads, which are symptom of our Monied Interests disease.

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