Last week, the American Medical Association called for a ban on direct-to-consumer advertising—commonly known as DTC—of prescription drugs and medical devices, citing a concern that this marketing plays a part in fueling escalating drug prices. I started seeing inquiries from colleagues and clients in my in-box, asking what I thought about the new policy and its implications for pharmaceutical marketing.
Of course, one of the first things that came to mind was that the policy didn’t acknowledge the positive impacts of DTC marketing. DTC advertising, particularly unbranded disease awareness campaigns, often drives consumers to seek conversations with their healthcare providers that they might not otherwise have—leading to earlier diagnosis and treatment of conditions like diabetes or cardiovascular disease, which if left untreated, may result in a much larger cost burden on the healthcare system. And, whether unbranded or branded, DTC marketing is heavily regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and DTC serves as one mechanism to provide consumers with scientifically accurate information about health conditions and treatment options. As a larger proportion of the overall healthcare costs is shifted directly onto the shoulders of consumers, and we expect them to take a more active role in managing their healthcare, it is critical they have a clear understanding of their alternatives. Finally, DTC advertisements have been shown to support medication adherence, and patient nonadherence to prescribed medication is associated with poor therapeutic outcomes, disease progression and an estimated burden of billions per year in avoidable direct healthcare costs.
Perhaps it was because I was attending TEDMED last week, and so talking to lots of passionate innovators and scientists about various drivers of healthcare costs, the other thing that struck me immediately was that the AMA was going after the wrong industry. Pharma ranks as No. 9 in terms of overall advertising spending in the United States, trailing both restaurants (No. 5) and food and beverage (No. 8) in the latest Kantar Media data (Q1 2015 ad spending). The Coca-Cola Co. alone recently pledged to investors that it would increase U.S. ad and brand-building spending to $1 billion in 2016 to address flagging beverage sales. Ads for pizza, chips, and sugar-sweetened soda and sports drinks barrage consumers 24-7 with messages about how “you’re not you when you’re hungry” (with candy bars to the rescue) or pushing pizzas with hot dog bites built into the crust. None of these advertisements are required to carry “fair balance,” giving consumers a balanced picture of the potential side effects of eating these foods—obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease—nor do any of these products have clinical evidence demonstrating any health benefits at all. So I would suggest that if the AMA really wanted to ban some advertisements with the intent of reducing healthcare costs in the United States, it might want to direct its attention elsewhere.