No retreat on Rx drug ads

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It will be tempting for many, and flat wrong, to paint advertising and its costs as the villain in the next round of hand-wringing about the soaring overall price of healthcare. The decision by the federal government to grant sellers of prescription products many of the same advertising privileges accorded other businesses was, and is, simply a belated recognition of the consumer's right to know.

When the U.S. Supreme Court 25 years ago extended First Amendment protections to "commercial speech," the justices weren't solely-or even primarily-concerned with the rights of the "speaker," the advertiser. They were concerned about government bans and restrictions that kept important information from reaching the audience of citizen-consumers. (In fact, the Supreme Court ruling that established this principle involved pharmaceuticals-a state ban on the advertising of prescription drug prices.)

The importance of that concern is no less vital now that pharmaceutical ads are ubiquitous and spending on ads addressed to consumers, not doctors, reached an estimated $2.5 billion last year. Perhaps it's even more important because the critics will be arguing that advertising offers little true value for consumers while "manipulating" them to buy what they don't need at prices inflated by the cost of the ads themselves. These are old arguments seeking new converts, but they don't stand up under close scrutiny any better today than they did 25 years ago, or 50 years ago.

DTC drug advertising-how it's done and what it says and doesn't say-is certainly fair game for periodic examination, as the Food & Drug Administration is now doing. But there is no returning to the era when the FDA dictated that "commercial speech" about pharmaceuticals could only be safely addressed to physicians in order to "protect" the rest of us.

If doctors are too busy to talk to consumers about the drugs they see advertised, and if health insurance plans want consumers to be content with cheaper treatments, then that is a problem for them. But don't lay that problem at advertising's door.

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