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Direct-to-Consumer Pharma Ads in the Crosshairs

   March 02, 2016

The Responsibility in Drug Advertising Act, introduced in the US Congress, would impose a three-year moratorium on advertising newly approved prescription drugs to consumers.

You wouldn't think Triumph the Insult Comic Dog would have any relevance to the debate about pharmaceutical companies using direct-to-consumer advertising, but a video clip promoting the sardonic puppet's 2016 election special on Hulu proves otherwise.

The clip shows Triumph talking to U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz at a recent democratic national debate. "Bernie and Hillary together, they're so old they look like the couple from the Cialis ad," he says in the clip. "Maybe next time you should have them debating in side-by-side bathtubs."

The quips get a good laugh out of the audience and the Florida congresswoman herself, because that's how ubiquitous those drug commercials are. We're all in on the joke.

But no one is laughing louder than big pharma.

According to the American Medical Association, this level of brand saturation by Cialis and countless other drugs that have become household names, leads to more people seeking prescription medications that they might not need from physicians who might not be willing to prescribe them. This increases the price of those drugs and the money spent on selling them. And it's one of the reasons the AMA voted to ban direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising of prescription drugs and medical devices back in November.

"Today's vote in support of an advertising ban reflects concerns among physicians about the negative impact of commercially-driven promotions, and the role that marketing costs play in fueling escalating drug prices," AMA board chair-elect Patrice A. Harris said in a media release last November. "Direct-to-consumer advertising also inflates demand for new and more expensive drugs, even when these drugs may not be appropriate."

A representative from the trade group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America countered, telling the Associated Press that DTC ads provide "scientifically accurate information to patients so that they are better informed about their health care and treatment options" and that the ads encourage patients to visit their doctors' offices "for important doctor-patient conversations about health that might otherwise not take place."

Limits Proposed
At the time, this rhetoric seemed largely symbolic, since the AMA's vote had no real impact. Only the Food and Drug Administration or Congress can actually ban pharmaceutical advertising. But last week a representative from Connecticut introduced a bill to Congress that proposes to put limits on pharma DTC campaigns.

"At the end of the day, we should allow informed medical professionals, not advertising executives, to guide our healthcare spending," Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) told AdAge. Her "Responsibility in Drug Advertising Act" would impose a three-year moratorium on advertising newly approved prescription drugs to consumers.


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Marianne Aiello is a contributing writer at HealthLeaders Media.

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