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The Implications of Drug Advertising in the U.S.
ONC Editorial

Jun 15, 2023

This Op-Ed discusses how large-scale pharmaceutical companies wield drug advertising as a mechanism to increase sales, and its repercussions on human livelihood. (The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author, whose information can be found below.)

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) permits pharmaceutical companies to advertise prescription medications on television. The U.S. is one of two countries that permit direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising of prescription drugs. Drug advertisements are geared to target those who suffer from chronic illnesses such as diabetes and other medical conditions. Statista calculated that in the year 2020, the pharmaceutical industry in the U.S. spent 6.58 billion dollars on direct-to-consumer advertising. Drug advertising assists big pharma companies with increasing sales, establishing lifelong customers and eliminating its competitors. The issue with drug advertising is that it happens at the expense of an individual's health and income. Big pharma’s focus is to provide a temporary treatment for an illness rather than cure it.  

Pharmaceutical companies capitalize on treating chronic illnesses because a long-term patient will warrant a steady inflow of money. Research demonstrates that medications that appear in DTC ads are prescribed nine times more than those that do not appear in commercials. Patients are more inclined to inquire about DTC medications that are exorbitantly priced versus the lower-priced generic alternatives. The opposition is concerned that pharmaceutical companies are promoting these medications when the side effects are not thoroughly understood.  

Federal law does not require pharmaceutical companies to submit ads for pre-approval prior to them being used. This is an issue because the public may be exposed to misinformation. If the ad violates the law, then the drug company will receive a letter to discontinue the ads. The FDA does not limit the amount of money pharmaceutical companies spend to create these ads. Although there is a guideline of information that must be provided within an ad–such as the use and risks of a given drug–companies are not required to provide the consumer with information regarding the price, generic version and if lifestyle changes, such as a healthy diet and exercise, could help an individual's condition. An ad will violate the law if the drug claims to treat a condition when the FDA has not approved the drug for such use. An overemphasis on the drug's benefits while failing to focus on risks would result in a failure to balance information.  It is vital that companies provide adequate evidence and do not misrepresent data from respective studies. 

The focus needs to shift from patching up chronic health conditions with expensive medications to relieving individuals by educating and guiding patients toward a lifestyle change.  More than 37 million Americans suffer from diabetes and approximately 90-95% of them have type 2 diabetes.  People are able to manage type 2 diabetes through healthy eating and being active.  The ultimate goal for a diabetic patient is remission.  Healthy habits are cost-efficient in the long run if it means weaning off medications.  Pharmaceutical companies should prioritize patient wellbeing over maximizing profits and drugs should not be advertised as promotional products.

To see all sources consulted/reviewed/interviewed for the purposes of writing this article and to learn more about this article's author, Kealohilani Mendiola, click here.

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