Editorial: TV drug ads – A painful reminder of pharma lobbying

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Donald Trump, as a candidate and as president, has been great for cable television news shows. Viewers, driven by shock, horror or curiosity – “what did he do today and what will he do next” – have meant record ratings for Fox News, CNN and MSNBC. But watching the news means watching drug ads that sound something like this.

“One daily time-released dose of Stupenza will cure all that ails you. Contact your doctor if, while taking Stupenza, cerebral material starts trickling out your ears or one or more of your limbs has withered.”

The United States and New Zealand are the only nations that permit direct to consumer drug advertising. Drug ads were banned in the U.S. prior to 1997, but that year, the Clinton administration FDA approved drug ads as long as they contained what are now the breathlessly rushed, horrifying catalog of potential side effects. Pharmaceutical companies, which will spend some $8 billion on direct to consumer (DTC) advertising this year, claim the ads educate consumers and reduce the stigma of conditions like psoriasis, erectile dysfunction, toe fungus and loss of bladder control. Their claims are questionable at best. What they do is prompt more patients to request that their physician prescribe the televised medication and make money for drug companies.

The American Medical Association has called for a ban on DTC drug ads because they increase the demand for expensive drugs when cheaper alternatives might work as well. They also contribute to the phenomenal increase in drug prices. According to the National Academy of Sciences, drug companies now spend more on marketing and administration than they do on the research and development they point to to justify ever-higher prices.

We too would like to see DTC drug ads banned, but realize that’s not about to happen. Big pharma ranks third behind the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Realtors in spending on lobbyists, according to the Washington Post. Congress, especially a Republican-controlled Congress isn’t about to poke that industry in the eye with a law that trims its profits. A ban would also be challenged on First Amendment grounds and the industry would likely prevail in court.

What Congress could and should do, and we realize the current Congress won’t, is eliminate the drug industry’s ability to write off its billions in advertising spending as a business expense. That practice forces taxpayers to underwrite the very advertising that most people wish would disappear from their TV screen.

The drug industry targets most of its advertising to older viewers because they are more likely to suffer from one or more maladies. They are also the ones watching TV. According to the Nielsen rating service, viewers over age 50 on average watch 39 hours and 35 minutes of TV per week and those over age 65 log 48 hours of big screen time weekly. Millenials age 25 to 34 log just 18-plus hours and teens just under 12 hours of traditional TV viewing.

A ban on DTC drug advertising, probably one with bipartisan support, might be enacted if declines in TV viewership lead drug companies to find a way to place their ads on laptops, tablets and cell phones. Will that happen? It depends.