The Truth Behind Drug Commercials

Like many other Americans, I get excited towards the end of January each year as the Super bowl approaches. I enjoy the game but I’m also just as excited to watch the entertaining commercials that have become increasingly part of the spectacle over recent years. Each year there are a handful of commercials that catch the public eye and create chatter through comedy or controversy.

This year I was interested to note that one of the commercials that got people talking was not that clever or exciting at all. It was a pharmaceutical advertisement for a stool softener to help treat a condition called “opiate induced constipation” or OIC. The discussion surrounding the commercial brought light to the ridiculousness of the entire concept.

The pharmaceutical company was marketing a medication to treat a condition caused by overmedication. When you think about it, it’s actually the perfect cycle for the pharmaceutical companies whereby an increase in sales of one medication directly increases the demand of the other with the only losers being us, the consumers.

Now I could take this chance to go down the road of discussion regarding the rise of opiate use in this nation, and that is certainly a very important discussion to be had and a large part of the problem, but let’s focus on the pharmaceutical companies themselves and specifically how they reach out to the public and create demand for their products.

Picture a handsome older couple walking down the beach in front of a beautiful sunset. They’re holding hands as they laugh together. A text overlay comes up advertising some drug for depression or erectile dysfunction followed by the long list of side effects. We all know this commercial or one of the many others like it. Do we ever stop to think why the drug companies advertise to us and should they be allowed to do so?

With the ubiquity of these advertisements, it’s easy to forget how unusual the whole practice is. The US and New Zealand are the only two nations that allow drug companies to advertise prescription drugs directly to consumers. Last year alone the industry spent over $5 billion on television and print advertising campaigns in the US and there’s no sign of it slowing.

What’s the big deal you might ask? The pharmaceutical companies argue that these advertisements create more educated consumers who are aware of the choices available. They help consumers become empowered to take control of their chronic conditions rather than become a victim.

What’s really happening is that drug companies are creating a demand for their product by inundating consumers with advertisements convincing them that they need treatment. Ever since the Food and Drug Administration altered guidelines in 1997 to allow pharmaceutical companies to advertise through broadcasting, many physicians have argued that there has been an increasing movement of patients to seek unnecessary medications. This puts pressure on physicians to prescribe medications to their patients that they feel are not in the patient’s best interests.

Furthermore, the increased spending on advertising leads to higher drug costs since many ads focus on new expensive medications. Prescription drugs now account for nearly 17 percent of healthcare spending, up from 7 percent in the 1990s and this is largely due to rising prices of name brand treatments. In a time where so much focus is on the unsustainable cost of healthcare in the US, this is a glaring contributor.

What’s more, under current regulations drug companies receive tax breaks allowing them to write off any money they spend on advertising or marketing as a tax deduction. As recently as November of 2015, Senator Al Franken put forward a bill to end these tax breaks saying that drug companies are “trying to encourage Americans to buy the most expensive drugs, even when cheaper, equally effective drugs are on the market … This is just a common-sense measure to help cut down health care costs.”

Pharmaceutical companies will further argue that the increasing costs of medications goes towards helping with research and development of novel medications. They explain that the process is very expensive and time consuming and that for every successful medication, there are many drugs that fail. There is a grain of truth to this argument and the development of novel drugs is indeed a noble and necessary endeavor, however it’s not telling the whole story.

The information that they aren’t advertising, but is unarguably the most important aspect, is the portion of their revenue allocated to research and development. A 2012 article in the British Medical Journal calculated that large pharmaceutical companies spend an average of 1.3% of revenue on developing new molecules and that for every $1 spent on basic research they spend $19 on marketing.

This rate is completely unacceptable and goes to show that current regulations promote an environment whereby pharmaceutical companies are incentivized to continue advertising their products over developing new ones. This model does not promote the advancement of medical knowledge but instead dramatically contributes to our bloated healthcare system.

Since 2015, the American Medical Association has been calling for a ban on advertising prescription medications directly to consumers. The move has not picked up steam because any ban would need to be approved by Congress. As a nation, if we are serious about dealing with our costly and inefficient healthcare system, we must deal with these issues. So, the next time you sit back to watch the game and yet another drug commercial comes on, ask yourself who’s really benefiting: the patient or big pharma.



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  7. “Senate Introduces Bill Eliminating the Tax Deduction for DTC Advertising – Policy and Medicine.” Life Science Compliance Update. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Apr. 2017.
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  9. Silverman, Ed. “AMA moves to ban direct-to-consumer drug advertising.” STAT. STAT, 09 Mar. 2016. Web. 08 Apr. 2017.

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