Political test faces RX ads

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No matter which political party occupies the White House for the next four years, both have campaigned around the country promising action to help seniors pay for prescription drugs -- and that's potential Washington trouble for the advertising and prescription pharmaceuticals industries.

As elected officials come to grips with making good on their promises, scrutiny about what goes into drug costs will be inevitable. The drug industry's embrace of mass media advertising to directly reach consumers, and the substantial sums behind some of these campaigns, make it an inviting, and inevitable, target for critics.

While the drug industry will be the focus of policy makers' scrutiny, the wider advertising industry cannot escape participating in such a discussion. The advertising agencies and media that create and transmit prescription product advertising have an obvious interest, but any attack on prescription ad spending will likely raise questions about the value -- to consumers and to competition -- that advertising in general represents. That sort of discussion requires vigorous participation from everyone involved in the ad business.

Any attack on the social utility of advertising for drugs, left unconvincingly answered, opens the door for discussion about what government can or should do to restrain such spending in the name of lower costs. That in turn might revive ideas like changing the federal tax treatment of drug advertising costs to deny or reduce their tax deductibility as a way to discourage ad spending -- or more direct forms of government intervention.

The U.S. drug industry is alternately praised for its achievements and damned for its thirst for profits. For years its sizable marketing expenditures, then directed to health care professionals, were largely out of view to the average American. No longer. When it is called on to tell the public what it gets for those ad dollars, everyone in the ad business has a stake in the answer.

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