Direct to consumer marketing is marketing from pharmaceutical companies directed towards patient rather than health care professionals.These marketing tactics are generally through mass media sources such as television, internet and magazine ads (Ventola, 2001). The United States and New Zealand are currently the only countries that have not banned direct to consumer pharmaceutical advertisements (DTCPA). Since the legalization of these advertisements in 1985, pharmaceutical companies have poured billions of dollars into marketing prescription drugs. The original purpose of these advertisements was to encourage people to play an active role in their healthcare by seeking out medical attention. The marketing towards patient/consumers were also expected to remove the negative stigmas associated with certain diseases and normalize “sickness”. The laws and regulations of the DTCAP were relaxed in 2009 to where the advertisements are only required to mention a brief description of the drugs and its side effects (Ventola, 2001). Fast forward to 2017, these prescription drugs advertisements have lead to misinforming patients, stigmatization of normal bodily functions, the increasing healthcare cost and account for the overuse of prescription drugs.
With the lack of restrictions on direct to consumer advertising, pharmaceutical companies exaggerate and or glamorize the positive effects of the prescription drugs.The advertisements tend to omit information to exemplify the positive effects of the medication. For example, a study done by Frosch et al. examined a sample of DTCPA and the result was that although most made factual claims about the product used, few made claims about the condition causes, risk and prevalence of the dieseases (2007). Majority of these ads use positive emotional appeals, which in turn causes the patient to discredit information about the risk and side effects of the drug. This strategy used by pharmaceutical companies “encourages viewers, some of whom may not be at risk of the condition to seek treatment for clinically inappropriate reasons, such as fear and or expectations of happiness if they do use the product” (Frosch et al., 2007).The FDA regulations on these ads do not include qualifying language, which is why many of these ads use vague language. Terms like mild, usually and short time can be misleading and emphasis the benefits of these drugs. (Ventola, 2011). Also, the content in these ads are written at a minimum eight-grade reading level, so some readers may lack the skills to fully understand the entirety of the advertisements (Ventola, 2001). Advocates for DTCPA argue that these advertisements educate but if these companies are leaving out essential information, being vague and not using inclusive language, how much are they trying to teach.
Another issue with DTCPA is the medicalization of normal bodily function. Medicalization is “ the process by which nonmedical problems become defined and treated as medical problems, usually in terms of illnesses and disorders”(Bonaccorso, 2002). DTCPA encourages people to seek medical attention for normal aspects of life such as aging, wrinkles, and low testosterone which results in an overmedicated society. For example, the wording in DTCPA for menopause is hormone deficiency disease which stigmatizes women for a normal midlife experience (Ventola, 2007). DTCPA also targets men with low testosterone by emphasizing the use of erectile dysfunction drugs for those experiencing normal changes in sexual activity. Studies have shown that only ten percent of men experience erectile dysfunction but the advertisements market ED as normal (Ventola, 2007). Pharmaceutical companies tend to medicalize diseases that have no official treatment to expand their market and increase their sales. Along with medicalizing diseases, pharmaceutical companies are now manufacturing diseases. This phenomenon is called disease mongering ,where a new disease is discovered and not for the safety of the public health but for increased revenue, pharmaceutical companies create a new drug (Wolinsky, 2005). Critics argue that “regular human conditions such as unhappiness, stomach aches and boredom are being redefined as diseases: depression in the mildest form, irritable bowel syndrome and attention deficit disorders” (Wolinsky, 2005). These pharmaceutical companies are researching, manufacturing and exploiting drugs for profit without any regards for public health.
Lastly, the large amount of money being spent in creating these direct to consumer pharmaceutical ads result in the increase of health care cost. A recent survey concluded that approximately 80% of physicians agreed that DTCPA is at fault for increased health care cost. Over the span of ten years, spending for DTCPA has increased more than 330% (Law, 2009). To account for the production of these expensive advertisements, pharma companies have to raise the price of the advertised drug.Another reason for increased healthcare cost is that DTCPA encourages a patient to go see a physician for no reason, wasting time and money. Since generic drugs are not being advertised, patients are more likely to request a brand name drug rather than other drugs that are more effective and cheaper. On average brand named drugs are 30 to 80 percent more costly than generic drugs but have the same main ingredient. When patients asked for specific brand named drugs over 50% made the request while the other physicians offered the equivalent generic drugs (Massachusetts General Hospital, 2013). Common marketing practices of pharmaceutical companies such as handing out free drugs samples and drug sponsored office supplies also pose a threat and increases the likelihood of a physician prescribing and brand named drug (Massachusetts General Hospital, 2013). With direct to consumer pharmaceuticals ads having so much influence on health care cost, what are we really paying for the drug or the advertisement?
To conclude, I think we should ban direct to consumer pharmaceuticals advertisements in the United States because they are not as beneficial as originally intended. The advertisements misinform patients while only emphasizing the benefits of the drug. Along with glamorizing diseases, big pharma companies are medicalizing normal bodily functions like aging, wrinkles and low testosterone. Lastly, the amount of money spent on the marketing tactics have a positive correlation on health care cost. If not banned, I think we need stricter regulations on DTCPA. Also, I think it's important we try to educate patients on the need to research more about these advertised drugs before they try to request a prescription from their physician.
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