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In a dramatic step, the American Medical Association is calling for a ban on advertising prescription drugs and medical devices directly to consumers. The move, however, is largely symbolic, because any ban would have to be authorized by Congress.

The new AMA policy comes after years of complaints by physicians. Ever since the Food and Drug Administration revised guidelines in 1997 to permit drug firms and medical device manufacturers to use broadcasting advertising, doctors argued some ads too often encourage patients to seek medicines unnecessarily. They also resent the pressure the ads place on them to write prescriptions out of concern patients will switch physicians.

Another rationale for the ban, however, is the rising cost of drugs. Doctors have long argued that many of the ads aimed directly at consumers promote more expensive medicines. This, in turn, raises overall health care costs.


In fact, the AMA plans to convene a task force and launch an advocacy campaign to promote greater affordability for medicines and greater transparency in prescription drug prices. The AMA worries that patients are foregoing needed treatment due to rising costs and limitations on insurance coverage.

The new policy “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 Dr. Patrice Harris, in a statement. “Direct-to-consumer advertising also inflates demand for new and more expensive drugs, even when these drugs may not be appropriate.”


The AMA noted that prices on generic and brand-name drugs rose 4.7 percent this year, according to the Altarum Institute Center for Sustainable Health Spending. And the organization also pointed out that advertising dollars spent by drug makers increased by 30 percent in the last two years to $4.5 billion. The organization cited data from Kantar Media, a market research firm.

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. 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.

Not surprisingly, industry reaction was scathing.

One trade group that represents advertisers and marketers argues that a ban would violate free speech rights. “It flies in the face of the First Amendment,” John Kamp, who heads the Coalition for Healthcare Communication, told us. Companies, he explained, have a right to tell “the truth” about their products.

He also maintained that patients and caregivers “want and deserve up-to-date information on the availability of drugs. The days of Dr. Kildare being the exclusive source of information about health and medicine have come and gone.”

A spokeswoman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the trade group for drug makers, sent us this: “Providing scientifically accurate information to patients so that they are better informed about their health care and treatment options is the goal of direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising about prescription medicines.

“Beyond increasing patient awareness of disease and available treatments, DTC advertising has been found to increase awareness of the benefits and risks of new medicines and encourage appropriate use of medicines. In addition, DTC advertising encourages patients to visit their doctors’ offices for important doctor-patient conversations about health that might otherwise not take place.”

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