Pharmaceutical companies could be prohibited from advertising new drugs directly to consumers for the first two years they are on the market under a bill moving through Congress this week.
The goal, supporters say, is to ensure medicines are safe before allowing industry to promote them to consumers in the hopes they will request prescriptions from doctors.
But a reduction in TV and print advertising, which helped transform medications for heartburn and arthritis into blockbusters, would be a serious financial blow to drug makers. According to one study, every $1 spent on pharmaceuticals advertising often adds more than $2 in sales.
While the Food and Drug Administration already screens a small portion of ads voluntarily submitted by drug companies, consumer advocates favor much tougher regulation, arguing that the studies companies use to test the safety of new drugs are not always large enough to spot dangerous side effects.
“We don’t know, and we won’t know, how truly safe a drug is until it’s been used in millions of people,” said Consumer Reports analyst Bill Vaughan. “The real testing of these drugs takes place after a pill hits the market and that’s why the advertising needs to be regulated.”
This is pretty significant. Big pharma is increasingly reliant on the blockbuster drug that addresses chronic and/or lifestyle diseases affecting the a large proportion of the affluent adult population. To reach this population, you need to target it with massive advertising blitzes that
- Alert you to the fact that you might have a problem – Restless leg syndrome, anyone!. This might be something that may be important, but nothing you might have noticed.
- Prod you to get treated for it.
- Convince both you and your doctor that the flashy new drug, which is 100 bucks per month is so much better than the other drug that is 10 bucks a month (Not much science is necessary here, just a major advertising blitz and continuous access to doctors through visits, “seminars”. “gifts”, etc.)
- Work with insurance companies to make this drug the treatment of choice
- Lather, rinse and repeat!
Note that advertising is a huge part of this circle, and any restrictions to this said advertising will have pharma crying foul, and free speech. Call me old fashioned, but free speech protects an individual from surveillance, imprisonment, torture, execution, etc. by his oppressive government of choice due to views he/she might have and/or express. All corporate speech is regulated by definition because it involves a flow of information from a party that has a knowledge edge to one, that does not. To the extent that corporate speech helps the end user, it is beneficial. To the extent it hurts, it is not. So regulation of this speech should be a line drawn by government/regulating authority based on maximizing the benefit to the consumer, not to the industry.
Davidson has urged Senate staffers to eliminate the provision on advertising, arguing that the Supreme Court has already struck down similar attempts to regulate commercial speech.
I do not think that in the current regulatory and judiciary environment, this provision has any chance of passing. As long as “commercial” speech is as free as “individual” speech, we will forever be exploited by organizations that have a knowledge gap on us and use this knowledge gap to make us buy/do things that may not necessarily be in our interest.