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It's Time for the FDA to Prohibit Direct-to-Consumer Advertising by Pharmaceutical Companies

Posted Nov 24 2009 10:02pm

I have generally been suspicious about direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising by pharmaceutical companies on TV and in glossy magazines. This type of advertising provides the drug companies with an opportunity to manipulate the viewing public with brief, slick messages. I expressed my reservations in a previous blog note (see: Effectiveness of "Direct-to-Consumer" Drug Advertisements ). A recent article emphasizes how these ads may not boost sales and also that the taxpayers may actually be funding them. Below is an excerpt from it (see: Drug ads ineffective for boosting sales, could cost taxpayers: UBC-Harvard study ):

US Taxpayers may be on the hook for the high cost of drug advertising that does little to boost sales, according to a new study led by a University of British Columbia health policy researcher. The study...examined the US sales patterns of clopidogrel, a top-selling drug also known by the trade name Plavix used to prevent blood clots after heart attack or stroke. The drug was selected to study the impact of advertising on sales because it was sold for more than three years before the launch of its first direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA) campaign in 2001. "While clopidogrel use has been increasing for some time, we found advertising it to consumers didn't make use rise any faster," says [one of the authors of the study] The researchers found a significant jump in the drug's price that coincided with the launch of its DTCA campaign. This higher price added US $207 million to the pharmacy bill for Medicaid, a publicly funded health program in the US for individuals and families with low incomes...."The key issue is whether advertising to consumers, which has risen 330 per cent in the last 10 years in the US, contributes to the significant cost increases in publicly funded health insurance programs such as Medicaid," says [another author of the study].

This news comes at the same time that the FDA is holding hearings about whether pharmaceutical companies should be allowed to use social media such as Twitter to promote their products (see: FDA Begins to Shape Rules for Online Drug, Device Ads ). My reaction to this latter issue was instantly negative, given the fact that Tweets are limited to 140 characters. In such a setting, the contraindications to the use of a drug cannot be adequately covered. Moreover and at least in my mind, there is the distinct possibility that the less ethical pharmaceutical companies could pay individuals to post glowing reports about their products on social media as a form of viral marketing. There is no way that the FDA could police such underhanded activities on Twitter with a current daily volume of about 25 million message.

Let's put an end to all DTC advertising by pharmaceutical companies on TV and magazines. These companies should, of course, be allowed to communicate with physicians via the web and printed materials. As I noted above, the web, but not web-based social media like Twitter, is the most appropriate communication channel for healthcare consumers who want to acquire detailed information about drugs. In essence, they would be looking over the shoulders of the doctors. Web advertisements and reports by these companies, of course, can easily be scrutinized by the FDA. Consumers browsing the web can also get ready access to medical journal articles about the effectiveness of drugs and also adverse reactions, achieving a balance not available on TV or consumer magazines.

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