DTC in Perspective: The AMA Firestorm


The recent announcement by the American Medical Association(AMA) calling for a ban on DTC ads has created a media avalanche of coverage. Google “AMA DTC ban” and you get numerous articles covering the issue. Many are from newspapers with letters/op-eds supporting the ban of DTC. The prestigious New York Timesran an editorial on November 27 titled Turn the Volume Down on Drug Ads. The editorial does not call for an outright ban, recognizing free speech issues might be a barrier. It does say perhaps the public should fund alternate information on effectiveness to offer consumers alternatives to branded drugs. They also float the idea of banning DTC for the first two years of a drug. They end the editorial saying consumers need to be skeptical what they read and hear from drug companies.

Bob Ehrlich
“We….need to take these threats very seriously.”
-Bob Ehrlich

The AMA call for a ban coincided with a recently released Kaiser Foundation study saying consumers wanted more DTC restrictions with 89% calling for prior FDA review. This study also received a lot of general media coverage.

Having reviewed the reaction to the AMA call for a ban, I am more nervous about new restrictions on DTC. A full ban is likely unconstitutional on first amendment grounds. The courts do not favor restrictions on commercial speech. That does not mean DTC cannot be further regulated. The FDA has broad authority to oversee promotion of drugs. Could they make advertising more burdensome for drug companies? If the FDA believes DTC is no longer in the public interest they could add more onerous fair balance or risk requirements. They could make it hard to run a DTC ad in 60 seconds forcing longer more expensive ad lengths.

The advertising lobby is of course responding to the threat. Numerous trade organizations take this latest anti-DTC wave seriously. No media company wants to have to replace drug ads which have become a major revenue source. The advertising lobby is telling Congress how many jobs would be lost if drug companies stopped consumer advertising. The New York Timeseditorial board may support restricting DTC but the publisher has to like the ad revenue.

We, as DTC professionals, need to take these threats very seriously. Remember, you as an individual have lots of influence with your member of Congress. I would be reminding them of the benefits of advertising to the consumer. Banning information is impractical in our world of easy access to the Internet. Consumers want to know what drugs are available and DTC helps educate them. Consumers do not need protection from FDA vetted information on DTC ads.

The New York Timesshould have more faith in consumers. Americans are skeptical of drug ads and use them as only one source of drug information. Product information from drug companies, their competitors, insurers, medical writers, consumer watchdogs, bloggers, patients and government researchers is available for both consumers and doctors to evaluate before a drug is prescribed.

As a society, the best protection for consumers is easy access to diverse sources of product information. Banning that information may make the AMA happy, but what else will they want banned next? Would they prefer no ads for alcohol, tobacco, fast food, sugared beverages, processed foods, chips, and other products potentially harmful to our health? Slippery slopes can be dangerous and the advertising industry is aware of the risks of a DTC ban.


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