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Healthy Skepticism Library item: 20143

Warning: This library includes all items relevant to health product marketing that we are aware of regardless of quality. Often we do not agree with all or part of the contents.


Publication type: news

Cassels A
A tough advertising pill to swallow
The Ottawa Citizen 2001 Jun 7


General Motors has caught on to the cost of drug ads.

Full text:

Turn on the TV or open a magazine these days and, more than ever, what pops out is a plea to try the latest pharmaceutical potion. A smiling woman beckons you to ask your doctor for Sarafem, a newly re-marketed Prozac which treats the world’s newest disease, premenstrual dysphoric disorder. Trying to quit smoking? A pharmaceutical company has given a facelift to an old drug, buproprion, to create the stop-smoking drug Zyban.

Baldness, erectile dysfunction and other pseduo-diseases are all ripe targets for pharmaceutical advertising, and while most of us think the “better see your doctor” shtick is harmless, fierce opposition to this practice is coming from the most unlikely of places – the accountants at General Motors.

Earlier this year, Robert Maroni, the assistant director of healthcare plans at General Motors, testified before the US House of Representatives that in 2000, GM spent approximately $900 million US for prescription drug coverage – a 19 percent increase over 1999. Nowhere else in the world are health costs growing this fast, and there is no indication that this kind of hyper-inflation is slowing down.

GM’s concern goes beyond the typical argument you hear from critics of drug advertising – that patients inundated by advertising lack the real information they need to make informed health decisions. It believes the spiraling costs of pharmaceutical are driven, in the most part, by drug advertising, and that these costs are causing significant damage to the competitiveness of any US firms that provide prescription drug coverage for employees.

Any big company or insurance plan – including our own provincial health plans in Canada – are facing drug costs which are out of control. Plans have two choices: impose stringent controls over which drugs are covered, or discontinue coverage altogether.

In the US, prescription drug spending went from $50.6 billion in 1993 to $93.4 billion in 1998, an 84 percent increase over five years. It is estimated that direct-to-consumers advertising added $13 billion to the drug bill in 1998. It’s not just that newer, more expensive drugs get prescribed, but the enormous cost of the ads themselves – about $2.5 billion in 2000 – need to be recouped through higher drug prices.

Advertising drugs directly to consumers is illegal in Canada, and most provinces would like to keep it that way for the very reasons that concern General Motors. But groups such as the Canadian Association of Broadcasters want Canada to loosen its laws around drug advertising so broadcasters can tap into a lucrative market. The current advertising restrictions in Canada, which allow advertising only to mention name, price and quantity, makes it unfair to Canadians who want to deserve more information on health and wellness, the broadcasters claim. That would be all well and good – if drug advertising actually led to informed consumers. But as Australian doctor Peter Mansfield, notes, “It’s a disaster”.

Dr Mansfield is the head of the Australian group Healthy Skepticism, which monitors drug marketing around the world and is in Ottawa today as part of a cross-country tour, sponsored by a coalition of consumer groups, to provide federal and provincial governments with a second opinion on the issue of pharmaceutical marketing.

Dr Mansfield says that only New Zealand and the US allow consumer drug advertising. He says what the drug companies advertise are the newest and often expensive drugs, but not necessarily the best drugs. Such advertising distracts doctors and the public from cost-effective therapy. Believing the situation in Canada is critical to worldwide trends, Dr Mansfield is here to encourage Canada to, at the least, start enforcing its own laws against US style advertising.

It’s not just General Motors that faces double-digit drug inflation, and wonders what kind of payback it is getting for all that money spent on drugs.

Why, indeed, would any company continue to want more of something that does little more than make them less competitive in the world of business.


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What these howls of outrage and hurt amount to is that the medical profession is distressed to find its high opinion of itself not shared by writers of [prescription] drug advertising. It would be a great step forward if doctors stopped bemoaning this attack on their professional maturity and began recognizing how thoroughly justified it is.
- Pierre R. Garai (advertising executive) 1963