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The least you need to know about drug advertising

November 20, 2015
by Julie Miller, Editor in Chief
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There’s been a lot of chatter this week about the American Medical Assn.’s (AMA) vote to ban the advertising of prescription drugs direct to consumer audiences. Here’s the least you need to know.

AMA cannot actually do anything about consumer ads. Members can lobby for legislation or raise awareness for the cause, but that’s it. Drug advertising falls under the purview of FDA, and only Congress can grant FDA authority to disallow the ads.

Drug advertising is $4.5 billion business. Many new drugs are truly helpful while having unusually high development costs. Yes, pharmaceutical companies want good sales on those products, otherwise they wouldn't bother making them. However, manufacturer profits are up, and advertising dollars for the big-ticket products are on the increase. AMA’s opinion is that advertisements inflate demand for the high cost drugs, burdening the system and consumers. Further, members believe too many consumers opt for advertised drugs in lieu of less expensive options.

There are standards for drug ads. Product-related direct-to-consumer ads must mention at least one approved use for the drug; the generic name; and all the risks of using the drug. Pharma companies face financial penalties if they don’t meet the guidelines. However, there are two types of ads that don’t require those elements: reminder ads and help-seeking ads.

  • Reminder ads give the drug's name but not the drug's use. According to FDA, the assumption is that the audience already knows the drug and what it’s for. A reminder ad would not contain risk information because the message would not include the condition or the drug’s use. For example, I keep seeing billboards all over my hometown of Cleveland that say “What is Vivitrol?” and nothing else.
  • Help-seeking ads are kind of the opposite because they describe a disease or condition but do not say the names of specific drugs. You see these on television a lot. They usually start with a list of symptoms and end with “Talk to your doctor.” When the costly hepatitis C drugs came out last year, I saw a help-seeking ad at least once a week during the evening news.

Drug ads can be helpful or harmful. Consumers generally want information on medical treatments that might improve their health or quality of life. Drug ads could drive them down the path to a prescription, as the AMA believes, or—particularly with help-seeking ads—they could encourage a much-needed medical diagnosis and some other type of care. It’s ultimately up to the physician and the consumer to make a shared decision. Keep in mind, however, FDA does not require that drug companies submit ads for approval in advance. If an ad violates restrictions, it’s often too late—consumers have already seen it.


Julie Miller

Editor in Chief

Julie Miller


Julie Miller has more than 14 years of experience observing, analyzing and reporting on various...

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