Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both have unveiled health plans in the past two weeks, and former Sen. John Edwards did so early this year. All are seeking curbs on advertising.
Sen. Clinton said her program would "provide more oversight of drug advertising, marketing excesses and inappropriate financial relationships with providers."
The document outlining the program says she would "limit direct-to-consumer drug advertising" but offers no specifics, though it notes that DTC ads are boosting pharmaceutical sales. The Clinton campaign didn't return calls.
Mr. Obama goes beyond DTC. His program looks to improve the overall health "environment" and mentions alcohol- and tobacco-ad curbs as part of his plan for a healthier America.
"Healthy environments include sidewalks, biking paths and walking trails; local grocery stores with fruits and vegetables; restricted advertising for tobacco and alcohol to children; and wellness and educational campaigns," according to a program description put out by the campaign.
Mr. Obama's campaign did not return several calls seeking details about the ad restrictions he is seeking. Tobacco advertising is already heavily regulated, and marketing materials from both industries are highly scrutinized.
Mr. Edwards, who repeatedly advocated DTC curbs in his 2004 primary campaign for president, early this year unveiled a health-care plan that calls for restrictions as part of a program to "protect patients against dangerous medicines."
According to the plan, "Edwards will restrict direct-to-consumer advertising for new drugs to ensure that consumers are not misled about the potential dangers of newly marketed drugs."
No Republican candidates have mentioned the issue.
Though ad groups weren't jumping for joy over the two new plans, they were concerned with major Washington fights already under way. Leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee are set to unveil legislation next week that could allow the Food and Drug Administration to ban DTC ads for a drug's first three years. Hearings on kids' food advertising and TV violence also are due this summer.
"This captures the difference between campaigning and governing," said Dick O'Brien, exec VP of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. "On the campaign trail, a call for restrictions on DTC advertising might work as an applause line. Once in office, a call for the same restrictions would trigger a constitutional rebuke."
Jeff Perlman, exec VP of the American Advertising Federation, called the candidates' proposals "unfortunate." He said if the talk continues, the groups might have to consider action.
"[Advertising] is sometimes viewed as an easy target, and incorrectly as something that can fix all problems," he said. "I believe that if the ad issue continues to be mentioned, it will be incumbent upon our community to try to make our case to the candidates."
Dan Jaffe, exec VP of the Association of National Advertisers, said bans on advertising likely would be unconstitutional and are unneeded, considering existing regulations and the industries' self-regulation.
"Tobacco and alcohol advertising are already strongly regulated," he said, adding that courts have rejected attempts to limit advertising to adults to ensure kids don't see it. He called the pharmaceutical industry one of the most heavily regulated in the world.
"Efforts to cut off prescription-drug advertising are counterproductive to consumers, cutting off communication that could be helpful and lifesaving," he said.
Still, he added, the attention on ad curbs is worrisome. "When presidential candidates begin to put [the issue] into play, it could have an effect on Congress acting right now," he said. "You've got to take it seriously."