The Grapevine

The American Medical Association Will Now Push For Drug Ads To Be Banned, But Why?

Drugs
The American Medical Association has decided to finally take a stance against those annoying prescription drug ads we see everywhere, but why? Steve Snodgrass, CC BY 2.0

In a surprising turn of events, the American Medical Association (AMA) announced Tuesday that it will begin advocating for a federal ban of consumer-directed advertising for pharmaceutical drugs and other medical devices — what most of us would recognize as those television ads that implore us to talk with our doctors about whatever latest cure is available now.

The decision came at the behest of a majority vote taken at the AMA’s 2015 Interim Meeting, which featured hundreds of delegates. “Today’s vote in support of an advertising ban reflects concerns among physicians about the negative impact of commercially-driven promotions, and the role that marketing costs play in fueling escalating drug prices,” said AMA Board Chair-elect Dr. Patrice A. Harris in a statement released by the AMA. “Direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising also inflates demand for new and more expensive drugs, even when these drugs may not be appropriate.” The AMA is the largest professional organization of physicians in the United States.

A Step Forward

It’s a bold change in policy if only because the AMA has somewhat waffled on the issue since the 1980’s, when DTC ads were first permitted to be shown in the United States (it and Australia remain the only nations that allow these ads to exist). As far back as 1997, the AMA offered a cautious endorsement of DTC ads, while pushing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to better research and regulate their use. And in the past decade alone, as noted by Buzzfeed News, the AMA has at least twice, in 2007 and 2008, declined to suggest a total ban, citing worries about the move potentially violating the First Amendment.

Perhaps anticipating that critique, the AMA’s statement Tuesday explained that drug makers have taken their advertising prowess to another level as of late, referencing figures by the market research firm Kantar showing that advertising has increased by 30 percent in the last two years to $4.5 billion a year. The AMA’s policy change is said to be only the first of many moves to promote greater prescription drug affordability. It will also convene a physician task force and launch an advocacy campaign to demand “choice and competition in the pharmaceutical industry,” as well as, “greater transparency in prescription drug prices and costs.”

Despite the overall change in tack, there are still delegates within the AMA worried about the repercussions of such a broad decision. In an interview with Bloomberg, Dr. Stuart Gitlow, a physician and representative of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, cited the early popularity of antidepressant drugs like Prozac and Paxil — spurned in part by DTC ads — as a success story for both consumers and pharmaceutical companies. “Those people sought and received treatment,” he said, “The advertising dollars spent by those companies didn’t lead to them having to increase the cost of their product.”

Ineffective But Popular

The following years, however, have seen a rise of backlash against the uptick of these widely advertised drugs. A review published earlier this September in The BMJ found significant problems with a supposedly ironclad randomized trial of the antidepressants paroxetine (the generic version of Paxil) and imipramine (trade name Tofranil) published in 2001. Contrary to the original study’s findings, The BMJ paper found that neither drug “showed efficacy for major depression in adolescents, and there was an increase in harms with both drugs.” Other antidepressants have similarly come under fire for their long-term ineffectiveness in adults.

Meanwhile, advertising campaigns elsewhere have marketed medications for medically dubious conditions like ‘Low T”, or low testosterone levels — campaigns that have predictably driven up public demand for unnecessary and potentially dangerous drugs.

Laudable as the AMA’s decision might be, the aforementioned $4.5 billion only represents a sliver of the money spent on advertising by the pharmaceutical industry. As noted by Vox, at least $24 billion was spent to directly advertise drugs to physicians in 2012, according to research conducted by Pew Trusts, whether through face-to-face sales or via providing educational and promotional meetings. This financial entanglement between doctors and pharmaceutical companies has long been suspected of negatively influencing medical care and research.

Time will tell whether the AMA will choose to be as vigilant about these dangers to the public as they’ve now become about DTC ads.

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