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The U.S. and New Zealand are the only two countries in the world that allow direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs. (Photo: A./flickr/cc)

To Break Big Pharma's Stranglehold, Doctors Vote for Ban on Drug Ads

Prescription drug prices have already become a presidential campaign issue, with healthcare costs a top concern for American voters

Deirdre Fulton

In an attempt to combat the soaring cost of prescription drugs and Big Pharma's stranglehold on the U.S. healthcare system, the American Medical Association (AMA) has approved a new policy to "support a ban on direct-to-consumer advertising for prescription drugs and implantable medical devices."

"Today's vote in support of an advertising ban reflects concerns among physicians about the negative impact of commercially-driven promotions, and the role that marketing costs play in fueling escalating drug prices," said AMA board chair-elect Patrice Harris, M.D., in a press statement on Tuesday. The vote took place at the AMA's 2015 Interim Meeting in Atlanta.

Supporters of the ban also cited concerns including patient confusion and encouragement of off-label, or unapproved, use of certain drugs.

The AMA points out that the U.S. and New Zealand are the only two countries in the world that allow direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs. What's more, advertising dollars spent by drug makers have increased by 30 percent in the last two years to $4.5 billion, according to the market research firm Kantar Media.

And in the past few years, prices on generic and brand-name prescription drugs have steadily risen, experiencing a 4.7 percent spike in 2015 alone, according to the Altarum Institute Center for Sustainable Health Spending.

Though the move is largely symbolic, as any such ban would have to be authorized by Congress, the AMA plans to pull out all the stops in an effort to sway federal regulators, elected officials, and the public at-large.

To that end, the policy approved Tuesday calls for convening a physician task force and launching an advocacy campaign to promote prescription drug affordability by demanding choice and competition in the pharmaceutical industry, and greater transparency in prescription drug prices and costs. It also states that the AMA will now monitor pharmaceutical company mergers and acquisitions, as well as the impact of such actions on drug prices.

"By casting the issue in the context of rising drug prices, the AMA is clearly trying to create as much support as possible for a ban," wrote Ed Silverman for the health, medicine, and science publication STAT. "The cost of pharmaceuticals, after all, is a hot-button issue that has galvanized much of the American public in recent months. The AMA proposal amounts to yet another indication that drug pricing will remain a policy issue for the near-term."

Indeed, prescription drug prices have already become a presidential campaign issue, with everyone from Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton to Marco Rubio and Ben Carson acknowledging that healthcare costs are a top concern for American voters. In a separate piece for STAT, also published Tuesday, Silverman pointed to a new poll which finds that "91 percent of voters believe it's important for presidential candidates to hold down rising prescription drug costs."

As noted by the Chicago Tribune, the AMA is merely the latest health organization to call for a ban on such ads, following the World Health Organization, the National Center for Health Research, and other groups. Many consumer advocacy organizations, including Public Citizen, have also pushed for a ban, saying such advertising pressures doctors to prescribe particular medications that may be less effective and more expensive and risky.

On Tuesday, Public Citizen said it supports the AMA's call. In an email to Common Dreams, Michael Carome, M.D. and director of the group's Health Research division, stated: "We agree that such advertising is primarily promotional, not educational, and drives up the cost of drugs."


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