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Power to the Patients
Peter J. Pitts, Wall Street Journal Europe, 4-12-06

Pitts argues that European policymakers should lift restrictions on direct–to–consumer advertising for pharmaceuticals in the name of improving public health.

No one would seriously argue that automobile commercials cause traffic accidents. Yet that's exactly the kind of argument often heard in Europe regarding "direct-to-consumer" advertisements for pharmaceuticals.

Many European officials seem convinced that drug ads would be harmful to the benighted masses—e.g., readers of this newspaper—who, upon seeing one, would lose their ability to make intelligent purchasing decisions. Yet evidence from other countries suggests that lifting the ban on pharmaceutical advertising could be a boon to public health. The European Parliament, which currently is reviewing its draconian restrictions on other types of direct-to-patient health-care communications, should give serious consideration to overturning its ban on consumer drug advertising.

In the U.S., it has been almost a decade since the Food and Drug Administration dropped most restrictions on direct advertising of prescription drugs, paving the way to television ads for drugs that treat everything from depression to high cholesterol. In both of these cases, and many others, the advertised medications treat diseases that are both underdiagnosed and hugely expensive to national health-care systems when dealt with via acute rather than chronic care.

And while critics continue to parrot the refrain that advertising increases the price of pharmaceuticals and leads to inappropriate prescriptions, they ignore mounting evidence that drug ads can have a positive effect—and not just on companies' bottom lines.

Studies suggest that direct-to-consumer advertising drives patients to visit their physicians, and the FDA has begun to examine what happens once they're there. A 2002 FDA study found that in cases where a drug ad inspired a patient to visit a doctor, the advertised medicine was prescribed 47% of the time. This in itself suggests a health benefit, as previously undiagnosed ailments were presumably being diagnosed and treated.

The advantages, though, go beyond use of the advertised medicine. The study also found that physicians prescribed a drug of some sort—including but not limited to the advertised medicines—in 71% of ad-inspired visits. This suggests that doctors were not unduly prone to prescribe only the drug the patient had heard of. Moreover, in 25% of ad-motivated visits, the doctor referred the patient to a specialist; in 45% of the cases, the doctor suggested a lifestyle change; and 50% of the time, the doctor recommended a diagnostic test. All of these figures indicate that advertisements motivated unhealthy people to see a physician.

Project FDA.
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