Editorial: Does business back DTC ads?

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As was reported in these pages last week, advertising's defenders are again bracing for trouble as congressional panels prepare for the next series of hearings on healthcare costs. But they have a problem closer to home that needs tending to-in the executive suites of business itself.

Every business that offers pharmaceuticals coverage to its employees knows about rising health costs, including the growing expense of prescription drugs. It's a legitimate problem, so serious that press reports detail how some employers have come out in opposition to slick ads for prescription drugs.

That the attacks on direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs emanated from corporate healthcare managers perhaps is not so surprising. That they lack much understanding of the role that advertising serves should be alarming. That a senior healthcare manager at General Motors Corp.-the No. 1 advertiser in the U.S.-condemns advertising for driving up costs and prompting consumers to seek advertised products they "don't need" should be shocking.

Does advertising build brand awareness for particular prescription drugs? It better. Does it lead consumers to ask about advertised brands? It should. Does it help educate consumers about what's available in the marketplace and enhance consumer choice? Absolutely. But consumers don't prescribe drugs; doctors do-and they should be doing it only when they, not the consumer, believe a drug is merited.

Given the swift growth of DTC drug advertising, it can't avoid being examined in any discussion of healthcare today. And how advertising is done-what it says and doesn't say-is fair game for scrutiny by public officials and regulators. But there is no going back. Consumers have the right to know. Given additional information by doctors, health plans and pharmacists about costs and the availability of other equivalent products, patients with their doctors can make sensible choices.

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