“If you came into a physician’s office with an ad for a drug you saw advertised,” suggests Dr. Robert Seidman, chief pharmacy officer for WellPoint Health Networks, in Thousand Oaks, California, the country’s fourth-largest health insurance company, “and the doctor says you don’t need it, but you say I really want it, in most situations, the doctor’s going to say OK let’s try it barring no interaction with other drugs. And that’s because physicians are very busy and it’s very difficult to fight Madison Avenue.”
Seidman is responding to a raging national concern that pharmaceutical companies, through glossy and clever direct-to-consumer advertising (DTC), are pressuring patients to ask their doctors about drugs they may not need. In fact, pharmaceutical companies hocking drugs for a sundry of ailments including diabetes, obesity, AIDS, herpes, heartburn, and erectile dysfunction have seen their bottom lines bolster through DTC advertising.
According to the National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation, a nonprofit health organization in Washington, D.C., pharmaceutical advertising has increased at double-digit rates since 1995. Between 1993 and 1998 there has been a $42.7 billion increase. In 2000, the industry spent $2.5 billion on DTC advertising while $86.2 billion worth of prescription drugs (65% of total retail sales) were sold in therapeutic categories where the top four drugs had a 50% or greater share of the market. Pharmaceutical manufacturers plainly see how their companies benefit. But what are these campaigns actually doing for the consumer?
The National Medical Association (NMA) in Washington D.C., the nation’s oldest and largest African American medical organization, recently released a survey of 900 black physicians finding that DTC advertising, as it affects African American patients, poses no harm. In fact, they have concluded that effects of better marketing to minority communities could prove beneficial to black patients.
“We see DTC as a good thing. We believe the ads do no harm. They increase health awareness,” asserts Dr. Sharon Allison-Ottey, author of the NMA survey. “We believe [the ads serve] as a tool in helping the nation look at healthcare and in helping patients [recognize] that potentially there is something that they are at risk for, or there is a disease that they should ask their doctor about. We, however, continue to ask for and support the Food and Drug Administration’s efforts to make sure the ads are balanced.”
The FDA mandated such efforts in a 1997 policy, which relaxed the rules governing broadcast advertising for prescription-based drugs. “Before that, if you were to run a branded television commercial, you were required to fulfill very detailed, very regimented requirements on disclosure,” states Michael Guarini, managing director of the Ogilvy healthcare practice. His division handles the marketing and advertising concerns of a number of pharmaceutical clients. “It made it very prohibitive for advertisers to use broadcast. [Today], the restrictions are really simple.” All branded commercials have to run, what Guarini calls fair balance or warning copy. They also have to provide four different ways for consumers to get information. DTC commercials must offer a toll-free