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Drugs & Medical Devices

Drug Advertising is At an All-time High, According to Study

— February 5, 2019

New study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association states drug advertising has skyrocketed across all mediums over the years.

Advertising for various prescription drugs appeared 5 million times in just one year, a new analysis found, showing up on television, in newspapers, on online sites and across other mediums in 2016.  The researchers estimated that medical marketing reached $30 billion in 2016, up from $18 billion in 1997.

“Marketing drives more treatments, more testing” that patients don’t always need, said Dr. Steven Woloshin, a Dartmouth College health policy expert, who wrote the report with his wife, Dr. Lisa Schwartz.  Dr. Schwartz passed away in late 2018.

“Because the goal of medical marketing is to shape our perceptions of the benefits and harms of drugs, treatments, and even of diseases, themselves, it can have a very significant impact on healthcare and can even hamper efforts to control unsustainable healthcare spending,” Woloshin said, adding, “I think our findings highlight that there is a lot of room to be more active in regulating medical marketing.  Enacting better oversight of product detailing or adding tables that quantify the benefits and adverse effects of drugs to advertising are two examples we cited in the paper, but there are many feasible steps that could be taken which could potentially improve the quality of health information and cut back on overprescribing and unnecessary medical spending.”

Drug Advertising is At an All-time High, According to Study
Photo by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash

The couple analyzed marketing data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Medicare, other federal and state agencies, private companies and medical research from 1997 to 2016.  Their research was published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association.  Only the United States and New Zealand allow for prescription drug advertising.

Spending on direct-to-consumer marketing accelerated the quickest during the timespan analyzed, from $2 billion or twelve percent of total marketing to nearly $10 billion and one-third of overall spending.  Spending on disease-awareness ads more than doubled, to $430 million spent on 401 campaigns.

Woloshin said “this was among the most disturbing trends, because manufacturers often use these to ‘sell’ diseases that can be treated by costly new drugs.”

Marketing aimed at physicians, nurses and other medical personnel increased from $16 billion to $20 billion and approximately $12 billion went for free drug samples.

Federal law says advertising cannot be deceptive and must be backed by scientific evidence, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees prescription drug and device advertising.  The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates over-the-counter (OTC) medications.   The findings note an increase in FDA violation letters about marketing of unapproved genetic tests.

Four years ago, in 2015, The American Medical Association supported banning direct-to-consumer ads for prescription drugs, stating physicians should not accept medical industry payments or gifts intended to influence prescribing habits.  Now, the “vast majority of physicians prescribe drugs and treatments they believe are in the best interest of their patients,” the AMA said of the recent report.

Holly Campbell, spokesperson for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America said these types of ads “increase awareness of the benefits and risks of new medicines and encourage appropriate use of medicines.”  A journal editor agrees, noting that medical marketing “needs no apologist.”  It has helped promote more informed consumers and has aided in allowing doctors to help their patients understand product claims.


US medical marketing reaches $30 billion, drug ads top surge

Medical marketing has skyrocketed in the past two decades, while oversight remains limited

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