Rein in the Advertising

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Steven Pearlstein of the Washington Post reports today that drug company executives have “acknowledged that they had gone overboard in advertising some products and laid out a set of voluntary guidelines for doing better in the future.” That sounds nice, but what are the guidelines? Here:

They require companies to provide doctors with more timely information about a drug before touting it on the evening news. They should result in ads that give consumers more useful information and present a better balance between medical risks and benefits. And they may even reduce the risk that you’d have to interrupt the Super Bowl to explain erectile dysfunction to your inquiring 8-year-old.

Better than nothing, I suppose, but this doesn’t begin to scrape at the problem, not so long as drug companies increasingly find ways to market new and controversial diseases—diseases that usually just so happen to require drug therapy—and not so long as doctors, many of whom have an overly cozy relationship with the pharmaceutical industry, tend to offer pills for nearly any ailment you can think of. Meanwhile, the new guidelines don’t restrict advertising for the many brand-name drugs that offer little or no benefit over cheaper generics. Pearlstein is right on when he notes that most drug advertising is aimed at “artificially creat[ing] the impression in the minds of consumers that such a need exists,” even when such a need doesn’t exist. And so long as the industry is able to peddle that impression, Americans will continue to spend more and more on drugs they may not even need or benefit from, while premiums and public spending continue to skyrocket.

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