By Gery L. Deer
June 26, 2014
According to a 2008 study by the peer-reviewed medical journal, PLOS Medicine, pharmaceutical companies spend nearly twice as much on marketing than research. In a review of the study, the consumer advocacy website, Consumerist.com, indicates, “Drug companies pour $57.5 billion into marketing, dwarfing the comparably paltry $31.5 billion devoted to research.”
Pharmaceutical manufacturers have rigid guidelines for promoting their products, but the question lingers: should non-over-the-counter drugs be promoted to the general public at all? The short answer is, probably not. The longer answer is more complex. Since, as a rule, Deer In Headlines deals with “fact,” not “truth,” here are some facts about drug advertising. Incidentally, if it is truth you’re interested in, check out a philosophy column (thanks Dr. Jones).
The official website of the United States Food and Drug Administration states, “Prescription drug advertisements can provide useful information for consumers to work with their health care providers to make wise decisions about treatment.” Leading the pack of heavily-marketed drugs are prescription sleep aids, blood thinners, anti-depressants and erectile dysfunction remedies. Most of the television ads for these medications appear during the day, carefully targeting certain markets.
What the general public fails to realize, however, is that these ads are intended to plant an idea in the head of the consumer who, in all their medical wisdom, will take the information to a doctor and insist on a prescription. Mission accomplished; more drugs are sold and the company’s stock goes up a quarter of a point, not to mention the fact there is one more person who simply can’t live without the latest pill. Perhaps a better understanding of how these ads are structured might help.
The FDA’s Office of Prescription Drug Promotion classifies medication advertisements into three categories: Product Claims, Reminders, and Help-Seeking ads. The product claim ad names the drug, the treated condition and lists the benefits and risks. A reminder ad shows the name of the drug, but not its use.
Finally, the help-seeking advertisement is directed at people with a particular condition for which they are trying to find a remedy. There is, however, no guideline for how much money a drug company can spend on advertising and some consumer advocates argue that it’s wrong for them to be able to spend more on marketing than research.
The fact is that it’s really hard to say exactly how much any one drug company spends on research vs. marketing because reported advertising expenditures are mixed in with the accounting category which also includes other figures, such as executive salaries. Research money is usually accounted for in a separate line item (R&D), even though it technically could be in the same classification with general operation costs.
Another fact is that everyone is a medical expert – yes that’s sarcasm. From the neighbor with every ailment more painful than the last or the relative who insists his doctor is an idiot but goes back every time his prescription runs out, self-diagnosis and treatment are a real epidemic in America.
There is also the concern that these advertisements actually plant the idea of a particular illness in the mind of the viewer who then heads to the doctor with a new problem, and a new prescription demand. Studies show that about 40-percent of all doctor visits are with the intention of getting a prescription. Since people keep going back, it’s safe to assume there are plenty of doctors obliging, and that needs to change as well.
Prescription medication should be marketed to the experts who will be prescribing it to the patient. Drug companies already spend billions on advertising and on-site sales representatives who offer samples and various other motivators to get the doctors to push their products for various ailments. The patient has no business self-prescribing and doctors need to be more responsible.
Gery L. Deer is an independent columnist and business writer based in Jamestown. Side effects of reading Deer In Headlines include a more open mind, alternative points of view and a better understanding of the world around you. No prescription necessary.