Editorial: A wrong cure for health costs

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Direct-to-consumer drug advertising has been kicked around this summer as the federal government considers adding a first-ever prescription benefit for seniors under the national Medicare program. It's a bum rap. You can criticize advertising because it's not impartial (and it isn't, though regulation of DTC ads for prescription products makes them more "balanced" than ads for any other product category). But it can't be denied that more Americans are more informed about available drug treatments than ever before because of it.

You can criticize advertising as an "unnecessary" cost. And there is no disputing that there is a lot of DTC advertising, backed by substantial spending (the impending launch of an anti-cholesterol drug was front-page news in this newspaper last week). But advertising is the great "news medium" of this consumer society. Twenty years ago, paternalistic government rules kept access to advertising about prescription drugs limited to health care professionals. It's hard to imagine denying consumers access to it now. In 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court first adopted the principle that consumers had a First Amendment "right" to receive truthful "commercial speech," the speech in question was price advertising-for prescription drugs.

Last month, the full U.S. Senate was asked to pass legislation that would have effectively ended most TV and radio advertising of prescription products by requiring extensive additional information disclosures. The Senate said no. Last week, the Senate Special Committee on Aging heard testimony on DTC advertising, including how the Food and Drug Administration is regulating it. Tough regulation must-and will-be a part of DTC advertising's future, as will legitimate inquiries into advertising's influences on healthcare choices. But cutting off the ads is no "cure" for health-care cost problems.

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