Opinion: Prescription drug advertising needs to go

US is one of two developed country that don’t ban direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs

By Dylan Harris, Copy Editor

Dylan Harris is the Copy Editor for The Easterner. The opinion expressed in this article is his own, and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Easterner’s editorial board.

The midterm elections are right around the corner, and political ads for local candidates and initiatives have invaded cable TV airwaves like an unrelenting cancer. No need to worry, however, as these ads will be gone and forgotten after Nov. 6. The real cancer of cable TV, ironically, comes in the form of prescription drug advertisements.  

In the entire world, there are just two developed countries that do not ban direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs: New Zealand and the United States.

This immoral, money-driven practice has been wearing on the American consumer since 1997, when ads for prescription drugs were first allowed on TV and radio. The Food and Drug Administration regulates this type of advertising, albeit in a way that is insufficient in protecting the health and financial well-being of consumers.

On Monday, the Trump administration and U.S. Health and Human Services laid out a proposed rule that would require drug companies to show the list prices of prescription medicines in TV ads.

“Patients deserve to know what a given drug could cost when they’re being told about the benefits and risks it may have,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in a speech on Monday. “They deserve to know if the drug company has pushed their prices to abusive levels. And they deserve to know this every time they see a drug advertised to them on TV.”

The proposal represents the latest attempt by politicians on both sides of the aisle to lower drug prices. While transparency and competition among drug companies would likely lead to some price drops, this proposed rule, should it go into effect, is far from a final, lasting solution for dealing with the unethical practices of major pharmaceutical companies.

Congress needs to cut off the head of the snake. Direct-to-consumer prescription drug advertisements need to be banned in the U.S.

According to data collected by Kantar Media, direct-to-consumer prescription drug advertising grew more between 2012 and 2016 than any other leading advertisement category, making prescription drugs the seventh-largest advertiser in the country at the time. The pharmaceutical industry spent an astonishing $6.4 billion on prescription drug ads in 2016.

The American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, the American College of Physicians and the American Medical Association have all spoken out in opposition of direct-to-consumer prescription drug advertising.

Prescription drug ads pose serious risks for consumers. For one, there is no way a 30-second ad can accurately and sufficiently explain the benefits and risks of a drug. Medical professionals study for years to better understand and better communicate the effects of different medicines and treatments. The typical “The Price is Right” viewer probably doesn’t possess this medical knowledge.

Second, most prescription drugs being advertised on TV tend to be the more expensive drugs. They are often drugs that treat chronic conditions such as diabetes, asthma or Alzheimer’s. Nothing says repeat customer like an incurable disease or condition.

Another glaring problem is that these advertisements create a constant demand for better, more expensive drugs. When one drug sells really well, competitors try to mock, and allegedly improve that same drug in order to mimic that success. This drives up the costs of all prescription drugs.

Every person is different. Depending on body type, blood type, lifestyle, diet and so many other factors, each individual person is going to have different needs or restrictions with their drugs and may react differently to a medicine than the next person. This is why we have doctors. Trained professionals whose main responsibilities are to evaluate their patients and determine proper medical plans that will best serve said patients.

Drug commercials appear so often that the use of prescription drugs is being normalized, if not encouraged. Not to mention the misleading actor portrayals. Like the antidepressant ads that show people smiling and laughing like they just won the lottery.

Opioid addiction is rampant in the U.S. right now. More drug ads on TV is not going to help solve what is still being described as a crisis.

Doctors often have limited time with their patients. Some patients have to wait weeks for a 30-minute appointment with their primary physician. Precious appointment time is being wasted discussing drugs that appeared on TV. Time that could be spent discussing options with a trained professional.

Advocates for Big Pharma argue that drug ads help encourage patients to ask their doctors about alternative drugs or treatments, which in turn could lead to cheaper options. They say patients are better informed that way. But isn’t it the job of the doctor to inform their patients? Big Pharma would say it’s the other way around.

To say drug ads are beneficial to consumers, is to say that doctors can’t be trusted.

Another argument in favor of prescription drug advertising is that the ads are protected in the Constitution. That freedom of speech gives them the right to put out these ads. This would be true if the ads weren’t harming the general public. Raising drug costs, contributing to the opioid crisis, targeting sick, elderly people and spouting misleading information are all perfect examples of harming the general public. Freedom of speech didn’t stop Congress from banning cigarette ads from TV, so why won’t they stop prescription drug ads?

Here lies the root of the problem.

While our country seems more divided across political lines every day, politicians from both parties are usually able to come together and protect Big Pharma.

Maybe because the pharmaceuticals and health products industry has contributed over $20 million to House and Senate candidates in 2018 alone, according to OpenSecrets.org. Pharmaceutical groups donate this much money because they want to help elect candidates that will rule in their favor when it comes to policies within the industry.

Imagine what could be done if direct-to-consumer drug ads were banned. The billions of dollars spent each year on prescription drug ads could be used to lower drug prices. It could be used for important research and development. The millions of dollars each year donated to politicians could be used to address the opioid crisis. The options would be endless.

But just like too many other important issues in the U.S., money seems to be the factor that prevents a proper solution.