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AMA Ad-Block

After adopting a new policy aimed at “driving solutions to make prescription drugs more affordable” in the US, the American Medical Association (AMA) is calling for a ban on the direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs and medical devices. According to Patrice Harris (1), AMA Board Chair-elect, “Direct-to-consumer advertising inflates demand for new and more expensive drugs, even when these drugs may not be appropriate.”

The US and New Zealand are the only two countries in the world that allow direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs – and there are supporters on both sides of the cause. AMA claims that the high costs of marketing also drive up drug prices, since pharma companies will need to offset the marketing costs. A study has also shown that direct-to-consumer ads can inflate demand; the study showed that the number of prescriptions written for the 50 most advertised drugs rose 25 percent in one year, compared to a 4 percent increase in prescriptions for all other drugs (2).

But the pharma industry says that the upshot of pharmaceutical advertising is that it raises awareness for treatments among consumers. A recent study found that many consumers do go to their doctors to talk about advertised drugs, but end up being prescribed a different drug in the same class, often with a lower price (3). The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America says that the goal of advertising is to provide accurate information about disease and treatment options – which in turn makes patients and doctors better partners.

Whether or not Harris and the AMA is right about the effects of direct-to-consumer advertising, banning it may prove difficult since US courts have previously ruled that product advertisements are a form of “commercial speech”, and that banning or restricting commercial advertising therefore violates the First Amendment (4).

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  1. “AMA Calls for Ban on Direct to Consumer Advertising of Prescription Drugs and Medical Devices,” (November, 2015).
  2. US General Accounting Office, “Prescription Drugs: FDA Oversight of Direct-to-Consumer Advertising Has Limitations,” (2002).
  3. M. Sinkinson and A. Starc, “Ask Your Doctor? Direct-to-Consumer Advertising of Pharmaceuticals,” Technical report, National Bureau of Economic Research (2015).
  4. C. L. Ventola, “Direct-to-Consumer Pharmaceutical Advertising,” Pharmacy and Therapeutics, 36(10) 669-684 (2011).
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