Is Prescription Drug Advertising Really Harmful?

In response to a recent article.

On October 21, many Americans celebrated “Back to the Future Day,” commemorating the day that film’s main character, Marty McFly (played by recent Advertising Hall of Fame inductee Michael J. Fox) arrived in the future.  Unfortunately the doctors of the American Medical Association appear to have misread the memo (could it have been the handwriting?) and recently voted to go back to the past by calling for an end to all prescription drug advertising.

In this case, the doctors have made the wrong prescription.  Far from being harmful, AAF believes that pharmaceutical advertising has provided a great benefit to consumers and public health.  By raising awareness of products available to treat many medical conditions, from lung cancer to COPD to, yes, erectile dysfunction, pharmaceutical advertising has resulted in countless patients making appointments with their doctors to learn more.  That can only be a good thing.

According to an AMA statement, “Direct-to-consumer advertising also inflates demand for new and more expensive drugs, even when those drugs may not be appropriate.”  Good news.  There is an effective bulkhead that can prevent patients from receiving inappropriate or unnecessarily expensive medications.  That bulkhead is, of course, the doctors themselves who must prescribe the medications a patient receives. Doctors are the trusted advisor, in a position to explain what drugs or alternative treatments are the best way to treat to the patient’s condition.

Some physicians may bemoan having to tell a patient why a particular drug is not right for them.  But the fact is, many of those conversations would not take place at all without the advertising, and many of those patients would be left with untreated conditions.

Pharmaceuticals may be the most highly regulated and scrutinized category of advertising.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has powerful tools to censure any prescription drug advertiser that goes over the line in marketing a product.  As it happens, pharmaceutical companies often voluntarily work with the FDA prior to an advertisement’s release to insure that all claims are accurate and fair.  By including the required lists of side effects and potential harms, it is certainly true that no other category of advertising so completely presents the positive and negative attributes of the product.

Even if the doctors’ proposal was not unwise, it would still be unconstitutional.  Simply put, the free speech guarantees in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibit any bans on commercial speech, including pharmaceutical advertising.  That is not just the AAF’s opinion.  The Supreme Court has affirmed that commercial speech – as long as it is truthful and about a legal product or service – is protected speech.  There are no exceptions for speech about products that may be unpopular with some or speech that is inconvenient to others.

We hope that the doctors of the AMA will stop looking to the past and rethink their call to ban pharmaceutical advertising.  We invite them “Back to the Future” to embrace the positive attributes that prescription drug advertising has for their patients and public health.

About the Author

Clark Rector, EVP of Government Affairs, AAF

As executive vice president-government affairs, Clark Rector oversees and directs the lobbying efforts of the American Advertising Federation’s grassroots network of 40,000 advertising professionals in some 200 local advertising clubs and federations nationwide. Together, they have defeated ad tax proposals and other threats to advertising in Congress, nearly every state and numerous cities and counties. In his role as chief public policy advocate for the Federation, Rector meets with lawmakers and regulators to educate them about advertising and represent the industry’s position on important legislative and regulatory matters.  He has testified for the AAF before the U.S. Senate and Federal Trade Commission, as well as numerous state legislatures and city governments.

Prior to joining the AAF in 1988, Rector spent two years on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant for Congressman Tom Luken of Ohio. He also spent three years working in local television in Austin, Texas. Rector is a graduate of the University of Texas and received a Master of Arts in Communication Studies from the University of Iowa.