Doctors are trying to ban pharmaceutical ads that drive up drug costs As the furor over ever-soaring drug prices continues to grow, America's largest organization of doctors is lashing out against the pharmaceutical ads that flood TV commercial breaks and fill glossy magazine spreads as part of the problem.
The American Medical Association on Tuesday called for the federal government to ban drug ads directed at consumers following a vote taken at the group's annual meeting in Atlanta.
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Targeting consumers, the doctors argue in the announcement, can help drive up drug prices by pushing patients to demand pricier brand-name treatments that aren't necessarily the more effective than cheaper options.
The move is an about-face from the group's previous position on the matter â that the ads are okay as long as they are heavily regulated to be as informative as possible.
It comes as concerns mount over the skyrocketing price of critical drugs at the hands of pharmaceutical giants.
Many pharmaceuticals, both brand-name and generic, have become more expensive than ever as the number of drugmakers competing has dwindled through mergers and acquisitions and the cost of developing a drug has risen exponentially. In some cases, companies have also been accused of working together to illegally undermine competition.
One cancer drug, for instance, jumped in price from $10,000 a year to more than $100,000 between 2000 and 2012, according to the Mayo Clinic.
In this Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013 photo, Merck scientist Pascale Nantermet conducts research to discover new HIV drugs in West Point, Pa.Image: Matt Rourke/Associated PressPoliticians and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle recently formed a task force to search for ways to curb prices, and presidential candidates have taken to bashing drugmakers on the campaign trail.
Multibillion-dollar marketing budgets make this problem worse, the AMA says, since these costs always eventually fall to consumers. Drugmakers now spend a total of $4.5 billion per year on advertising â a 30% increase from two years ago, according to research firm Kantar Media.
By some estimates, many of these companies spend significantly more on marketing drugs than they do on research and development.
Consumer-directed drug advertising has been a source of controversy in medical circles ever since the Food and Drug Administration first decided to open the floodgates to it in 1997. The United States, along with New Zealand, is one of two countries to allow it.
Doctors complain the ads spur patients to ask for flashy brand-name pills that aren't necessarily the best treatment or jump to pharmaceutical solutions too quickly because of conditions they may have seen on TV. Pharmaceutical lobbyists and other supporters say the ads inform patients about the drugs they are taking and give them more of a say in their own care.
The marketing can also encourage something called "disease branding," wherein drug companies create more complicated-sounding names for everyday problems, says Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman, director of Georgetown University's PharmedOut program, which analyzes the drug industry's sway on medical professions and public information.
She cites the rebranding of impotence as "erectile dysfunction" to better sell Viagra or of heartburn to "gastroesophageal reflux disease" to promote Nexium and Prilosec as two examples.
Furthermore, a 2013 study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine judged that six out of ten ads researchers reviewed "left out important information, exaggerated information, provided opinions, or made meaningless associations with lifestyles."
But the AMA's quest to ban ads will likely face a stiff uphill legal battle backed by a series of Supreme Court cases that have already established the drug industry's advertising as a form of free speech.
And it's not just pharmaceutical companies that stand to lose: The billions of dollars being pumped into advertising makes up a major revenue source for print and television media, according to Kantar.
It's also important to keep in mind, as Vox points out, that ads aimed at consumers make up a comparatively small portion of marketing budgets, the majority of which is spent on plying medical professions with promotional material and samples in hopes of pushing them into prescribing a certain drug.
The ties between doctors and big drug companies bring forth its own set of issues of objectivity, and many point to an undue influence these companies wield over the medical world.
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