A new study published in the American Journal of Public Health claims that prescription drug direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA) can be harmful to a person’s health. According to the researchers, prescription drug advertisements are “not doing a good job of helping consumers to make better decisions about their health”.
The study, A decade of Controversy: Balancing Policy with Evidence in the Regulation of Prescription Drug Advertising, explained that viewers of American television see as much as 16 hours of prescription drug advertisements every year. Living in the EU where DTCA for prescription drugs is banned, I have to say I was a little shocked at the number!
So what is it that the authors of the study dislike? First of all, it’s important to point out that the authors are not completely opposed to DTCA; on the contrary, they admit that it offers benefits. However, they also believe that improvements can be made to “minimize potential harm and maximize benefits”.
The authors concluded that the majority of prescription drug advertisements “fail to provide enough information to allow consumers to clearly identify whether the advertised drug is right for them”. They also added that the “over dramatization and emotional portrayal” of a drug’s benefits in advertisements can also be misleading.
As a solution, the authors proposed several guidelines: advertisements should help consumers identify whether the treatment is right for them; advertisements should provide accurate and specific information about the potential benefits of advertised drugs, and should state how the drug compares to placebo or other available treatments including generic drugs; and specific information should be provided regarding the potential risks associated with drugs without other visual or audio distractions.
This isn’t the first time DTCA has been in the spotlight. In 2008, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report that called on the FDA to boost its enforcement of DTCA rules, while in 2009 voluntary Guiding Principles for DTCA laid down by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) came into effect. Several members of US Congress, including Henry Waxman, have also called for changes to the FDA’s regulation of DTCA
As I mentioned before, DTCA in the EU is banned, but there have been moves by regulatory authorities to stick a toe into the DTCA pool. Earlier this year, Pharmaceutical Technology Europe reported on a proposal by the European Commission that would allow drugmakers to disseminate certain information on prescription drugs directly to European patients. The ban on DTCA would remain in place, but drugmakers would be able to provide factual, non-promotional information about the benefits and risks of their medicines using certain media (excluding television and radio). This could offer a compromise between allowing the pharma industry to advertise its products while avoiding the problems with DTCA highlighted in the study in the American Journal of Public Health.
In a press statement, the lead author of the study, Dominick L. Frosch, pointed out that: “If the pharmaceutical industry isn’t willing to change the ads to make them more useful to consumers, Congress should consider passing legislation that will regulate the ads to improve the information provided in order to help patients make more informed choices.”