If you watch TV on any of the three major networks — particularly the 5:30 what-passes-for-news programs (about 8 minutes of actual news and the rest an agglomeration of promos for other network shows, short fillers, and an closing feel-good feature) — it’s as if you’ve wandered into the Never Never Land of Big Pharma: one advertisement after another for drugs offering, maybe/perhaps, relief from this or that horrid health condition, if only you survive the long list of potential side effects, including stroke, blood clots, heart attack, sleepwalking, suicidal thoughts, and even death, the ultimate side effect.
In a recent 30 minute network “news” program, I counted 21 commercials/promos, half of which were for prescription drugs, most with computer-generated names that include Xs and Zs, aimed primarily at the AARP/Medicare generations, the largest consumers of these drugs (and the only ones who still consistently watch network evening news programs). Most popular magazines — yeah, there are still a diehard few who actually buy print media — contain multi-page ads for these drugs.
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The ads, which mostly feature happy seniors leisurely riding in vintage autos or walking/biking/dining/boating/taking photos in bucolic, sun-dappled settings (except when playing lovey-dovey in adjacent bathtubs), with the injunction to “talk to your doctor to see if (fill in the name) is right for you,” have proliferated like amoeba since restrictions on drug ads were removed by the Food and Drug Administration in 1997 (the U.S. and New Zealand are the only two countries that now allow direct marketing of prescription drugs). Pharmaceutical company profits have soared as a result of the ad barrage.
In 2014, the companies spent $4.53 billion on ads for prescription drugs. But that pales in comparison to the $24 billion they spent in 2014 on campaigns aimed directly at physicians, many of whom get hundreds of thousands of dollars from the companies in “speaking fees,” meals, gifts, and other perks.
None of the drugs are cheap, ranging from $400 per month on the low end to thousands. Drugs for treatment of Hepatitis C, can be as much as $1,125 per pill, once daily, often for many weeks — you do the math on that one. Ironically, the same drugs often cost less outside the U.S.
In further irony, when Congress added prescription drug coverage to Medicare in 2003, intense lobbying by the pharmaceutical industry resulted in the law forbidding Medicare from negotiating drug prices, as was very successfully being done by the Veteran’s Administration — an outright gift of billions of dollars to the drug companies. Allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices could, it is estimated, save $15 billion or more per year for a program that is threatened with bankruptcy down the way if expenditures are not reined in.
The American Medical Association, to its credit, has asked the federal government to ban these direct marketing ads. Citing “a growing concern” among physicians about the negative impact of these constant promotions directly to the pubic, it says, “A growing proliferation of ads is driving demand for expensive treatments despite the clinical effectiveness of less costly alternatives.”
Another downside is that this never-ending bombardment conditions us to think pills or injections can solve whatever problem confronts us — a 21st century version of Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel, “Brave New World,” that portrayed a utopian future where the government took care of everything and the citizens lived in a drug-fueled state of happiness.
Given that Big Pharma is, year-in year-out, the top spender on lobbying members of Congress, and that legal challenges would certainly follow any ban of the TV ads, the AMA request has about as much chance of passage as the proverbial snowball in Hades.