Study Shows Rise in Drug Advertising

Prescription drug advertising, a $15 billion-a-year business, continues to grow as drug companies increasingly bypass doctors and aim their message directly at consumers, a new study by Harvard School of Public Health researchers has found.

In 1997 the Food and Drug Administration eased rules for advertising prescription drugs on television. And between 1996 and 2000 spending on television commercials jumped seven-fold, according to the study, which was published in last week’s issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

The big jump in television advertising led a larger trend, researchers said. Overall pharmaceuticals firms tripled their spending on ads aimed directly at consumers over the same four-year period, according to the study, which also involved researchers from Harvard Medical School and MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

“We decided to do this research because of the growing visibility of prescription drug advertising and the simultaneous explosion in spending on prescription drugs,” the study’s author Meredith B. Rosenthal, assistant professor of health economics and policy, wrote in an e-mail.

Researchers found that most of the increase came from just a few drugs, including the anti-inflammatory Vioxx, the antiulcer drug Prilosec and the antihistamine Claritin. These drugs lend themselves to so-called direct-to-consumer (DTC) promotion, researchers said, because they treat common chronic conditions and have relatively mild side effects that do not require long disclaimers.

This kind of advertising could increase spending on prescription drugs because commercials lead consumers to believe they need more expensive brand-name drugs, researchers found.

“In the short run, spending could increase because people switch to the higher priced advertised brand,” Rosenthal said. “In the longer run, this could lead to higher drug prices.”

While most drug advertising still targets doctors and hospitals, researchers said DTC advertising raises controversial policy questions.

“The bottom line is that people are concerned that DTC generates a lot of spending on prescriptions of minimal or even zero value, so this takes money out of the system and away from more valuable uses,” Rosenthal said.

Though she said ads aimed at consumers have the potential to reach people who suffer from a treatable disease or are uncomfortable talking to their physicians, Rosenthal said there is still not enough evidence to speculate on the long-term effects of DTC advertising.