And now, a prescription from our sponsor…

pills.jpgCongress opened hearings yesterday on direct-to-consumer advertising for pharmaceuticals, lead by U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, a Democrat from Michigan.

Television commercials for Lipitor featuring Robert Jarvik were the immediate cause of the uproar. Pfizer in February pulled the ads for the cholesterol drug starring the creator of the artificial heart (never mind the puzzling logic of that endorsement) over objections to featuring an actual medical professional’s endorsement.

But there’s more to it than the ethical issue here. Think of the money.

Direct-to-consumer drug ad spending has grown from about $1 billion 10 years ago to about $5 billion now, according to the Wall Street Journal. About half of that goes to television.

Do the math: maybe 3 percent of the television advertising industry’s $80 billion revenue comes from drug companies. That means the likes of Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis are effectively paying for something like two minutes of every hour of television.

(It seems like even more than that if you watch cable for any amount of time.)

Drug manufacturers have long argued that marketing costs aren’t unduly inflating the cost of medicine, at least not above the rise in the Consumer Price Index.

But all that money’s not coming out of thin air, either. Whatever you think of the change in the price of medicine, there’s only one real place to get billions to spend on drug marketing: from the people that take the pills. Or injections. Or whatever.

cash2.jpgGranted, $2.5 billion in advertising expenditures would be a drop in the bucket of the $2.3 trillion Americans spent on health care last year. But if you’re taking name-brand Lipitor, for instance, at $100 a month or so, it still means you’re feeding more than a buck a year to your television.

And if that’s not the only drug you’re taking, or not even the most expensive drug you’re taking, you (or you and your insurance company’s clients) might be paying $2, $3, maybe even more, in annual medical costs to keep the MHz flowing into your television receiver. (And, to a much lesser extent, the magazine coming to your mailbox or the radio waves to your car antenna.)

I’m not going to argue about the truthfulness of the ads, or the medical or legal implications of direct to consumer drug marketing. And the media have an honorable place in promulgating medical information.

But given all that we ask of our health care system and the many ways it falls short, doesn’t it seem just a little bit absurd to ask it, too, to help bankroll the likes of Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice and reruns of the Golden Girls?

  • bsimon

    Great post.

  • c

    so are we selling pills to make money or are we selling pills to truly help people. isn’t that the business of medicine is to help the sick? what’s all this extra noise about?…advertising?…media..? if there is truth in the medicine it will sell itself.

  • Joel

    Advertising rarely pitches a product the consumer NEEDS. Usually the product is something that fulfills a perceived need, ie – want. Especially after heavy advertising. Trouble sleeping? 36 hour erection? Like Bill Maher said, I never knew I had Restless Leg Syndrome until I say the add on TV.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if Rx companies developed treatable medications for cancer? Then I would understand all the heavy advertising. But like C said, it would sell itself.