AMA Calls for a Ban on Prescription Drug Advertisements to Save Patients Money

The American Medical Association says direct-to-consumer ads are driving up treatment costs, but their efforts to ban the ads will likely run into a legal challenge.

The American Medical Association is calling for the federal government to ban consumer-directed advertisements for prescription drugs and medical devices. The doctors’ group says the ads are fueling consumer demand for costly treatments and driving an increase in drug prices.

Market research firm Kantar Media says that drugmakers have increased their spending on drug ads in the United States by 30 percent in the past two years. They now spend a whopping $4.5 billion per year on glossy magazine spreads and television commercials promoting their drugs.

“A growing proliferation of ads is driving demand for expensive treatments despite the clinical effectiveness of less costly alternatives,” the AMA said in a statement.

The Chicago-based association recently adopted a new policy supporting a drug advertising ban that “reflects concerns among physicians about the negative impact of commercially driven promotions, and the role that marketing costs play in fueling escalating drug prices,” AMA board chair-elect Dr. Patrice A. Harris said in a press release. “Direct-to-consumer advertising also inflates demand for new and more expensive drugs, even when these drugs may not be appropriate.”

New Zealand and the United States are the only countries that permit direct-to-consumer ads for prescription medications.

In addition to a ban on drug ads, the AMA is also calling for increased transparency in drug pricing and costs.

“Physicians strive to provide the best possible care to their patients, but increases in drug prices can impact the ability of physicians to offer their patients the best drug treatments,” Harris said. “Patient care can be compromised and delayed when prescription drugs are unaffordable and subject to coverage limitations by the patient’s health plan. In a worst-case scenario, patients forgo necessary treatments when drugs are too expensive.”

PhRMA, the largest U.S. trade group for the pharmaceutical industry, told Reuters that drug ads are used to increase consumer awareness about available treatments for illnesses and also provide information about potentially undiagnosed conditions.

“Providing scientifically accurate information to patients so that they are better informed about their health care and treatment options is the goal of direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising about prescription medicines,” PhRMA spokesman Tina Stow said in an email.

Banning drug ads is easier said than done because restricting the ads could run up against free speech protections.

If the government agrees with the AMA and bans the ads, “it’s very unlikely the ban would stand up to a legal challenge, which would almost certainly be mounted by both the pharmaceutical industry and media,” said Julie Donohue, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health, in an interview with Marketplace.

Drug prices have been front and center in recent months. Turing made the news when it hiked the price of a 62-year-old generic drug by 5,000 percent overnight. A Senate committee is investigating Turing and other pharmaceutical companies for massive increases in drug prices. The latest call from the AMA suggests the debate over prescription drugs will continue to heat up.

What do you think of the AMA’s call to ban drug ads? Share your comments below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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