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Banning drug advertising would put doctor back in driver’s seat

Ortbals Headshot 1 1 16By ALAN J. ORTBALS
    If you’re a television viewer — and most of us are — you are bombarded by prescription drug advertising. Humira, Lyrica, Xeljanz et al. —ask your doctor if they’re right for you. The latest one is Xiaflex for something called Peyronies disease. Look it up.
    If you’re north of 40, you remember when there were no prescription drug commercials on television. That’s because it used to be banned. Drug companies marketed their products to doctors, not consumers. But beginning in the 1990s, the FDA began weakening restrictions on DTC (direct to consumer) advertising and the market has exploded.
    There are just two countries on the planet that permit DTC prescription drug advertising — the U.S. and New Zealand — and America is a target rich environment. More than $6 billion was spent by pharmaceutical companies to hawk their products in the U.S. last year. The average American watches 16 hours of drug ads each year and we respond to them. Studies have shown that one-third of consumers who’ve seen a drug ad have asked their doctor about it and about three-fourths of the time their doctors prescribe it, often because they feel pressured to do so by the patient.
    The U.S. has by far the most expensive health care in the world and one of the reasons for that is how much we spend on prescription drugs — nearly $600 billion annually. Big Pharma doesn’t advertise all of its products. It pushes the ones that are most profitable. For example, Taltz, which treats psoriasis, costs $6,193 per month. Keytruda, a cancer drug, runs $8,369/month. And Cosentyx for psoriasis, comes in at more than $11,000 per month.
    Most people in the United States have health insurance either through employment or through various government programs (Medicare, Medicaid, VA, etc.). The private insurance companies front the cost and then jack up their rates to cover it. Government insurance programs get stuck with the tab pushing them ever closer to the edge of insolvency. Those without insurance are just plain out of luck.
    It doesn’t have to be this way. In 2015 the American Medical Association called for a ban of all DTC advertising of prescription drugs, saying that the commercials encourage patients to take drugs unnecessarily and to ask their doctors for the most expensive ones. The AMA also warned of ever-growing mergers and acquisitions in the drug industry reducing competition and driving up drug prices. Since that 2015 warning, however, more than $300 billion has been spent by Big Pharma on M&A.
    The average American citizen is simply unable to make any kind of judgment on the efficacy of an advertised drug other than the people in the commercials appear to be enjoying themselves. While an announcer rapidly rattles off the possible side effects — may cause serious, even life-threatening, allergic reactions, swelling of your face, mouth, lips, gums, tongue, throat or neck, hands, legs and feet, a rash, hives, blisters, depression, anxiety, restlessness, trouble sleeping, panic attacks, anger, irritability, agitation, aggression, dangerous impulses or violence, suicidal thoughts, dizziness or sleepiness — actors are shown dancing, riding bikes or playing tennis. DTC advertising is designed to bypass the doctor who has the education, training and experience to evaluate a drug and market it directly to people who don’t.
    A ban of DTC advertising, such as the AMA called for three years ago, however, would require an act of Congress and those are hard to come by.
    Two years ago, then-Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., introduced a bill that would eliminate tax breaks for pharmaceutical companies that advertised directly to consumers. Another bill was pushed by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., which called for a three-year moratorium on DTC advertising of newly approved prescription drugs. Neither bill went anywhere.
    We need to get a handle on the cost of health care in America and tamping down the unnecessary use of expensive prescription drugs is one way to do it. We should ban DTC drug advertising and put the doctor back in the driver’s seat.
    Alan J. Ortbals is president and publisher of the Illinois Business Journal. He can be reached at or (618) 659-1997.

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