Drug Ads: Big Waste Of Money?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

It's big business, but it may not have the impact that drug companies hope and that medical ethicists have long worried about. Direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising has only a modest effect on the sale of drugs, according to research released online yesterday by BMJ, a British medical journal.

In 2006, U.S. pharmaceutical companies spent about $5 billion on consumer marketing campaigns -- a practice that only two countries, the United States and New Zealand, permit.

DTC advertising has increased rapidly since 1997, when the Food and Drug Administration eased its regulations. At the same time, concerns have grown that consumers ask for drugs they see advertised in print and on TV and that, in response to that pressure, physicians prescribe them.

The new research suggests there may not be so much to worry about -- and that drug companies may be wasting their advertising dollars. The five-year study was conducted in Canada, where DTC advertising is illegal but where English speakers hear and see U.S. ads. French-speaking Quebec acted as a control group. It focused on three drugs: Enbrel (for rheumatoid arthritis), Nasonex (for nasal allergies) and Zelnorm (for irritable bowel syndrome). Researchers looked at whether use of these drugs increased faster in the English-speaking regions following the launch of U.S. ad campaigns.

Prescription rates for Enbrel and Nasonex remained the same in both communities. Sales of Zelnorm initially spiked in English-speaking regions but after a few years resumed the same pattern as in French-speaking regions.

"Decisions to market directly to consumers [are] based on scant data," says Stephen Soumerai, a professor at Harvard Medical School and principal investigator on the study, who emphasizes the complex chain from drugmaker to physician to consumer. Advertising prescription drugs is "not like popcorn, cereal and hair sprays," he says.

-- Frances Stead Sellers

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