ICBioethics Blog 

Direct to Consumer Advertising in the Pharmaceutical Industry

Written by: Barbara Postol

Those of us living in the United States have heard them, the television commercials for prescription drugs and the ad urging us to, “ask your doctor” about a medication. Research suggests we see at least ten of these types of ads a day. However, have we ever stopped to think about the topic of advertising prescription medication?


What is the point? If we are not trained as a doctor, chemist, or a pharmacist, what insight might we possess to know if a drug is right for our aching legs or trouble sleeping –isn’t that the job of the experts? Everything else on television seems to be trying to sell us something, could this be the same for prescription drugs?

The practice of drug ads on television is known as direct to consumer advertising and it is only legal in the United States and New Zealand. The pharmaceutical industry sets aside a substantial amount of its budget to promote medications. This type of advertising has become so engrained in America

n culture we may not give it much thought. Direct to consumer advertising expands from television to magazines, the Internet, and even into your doctor’s office. The next time you visit your physician, have a look around the office and notice all of the ads for different medications or the names of pharmaceutical companies around the office and exam room.

Direct to consumer advertising brings about ethical problems as well. In health care, the safety of the patient is paramount. Concern exists that the drug ads can be misleading emphasizing the potential benefits while downplaying the potentially harmful side effects. The well-known drugs Celebrex, Effexor, Enbrel, Levitra, Seasonale, Strattera, and Viagra, for example offered misleading advertisements on television commercials overstating benefits or understanding risk or even making unsubstantiated claims regarding the drugs.

Debate also arises when costs of drugs are considered. The industry states the research and development plays a strong role as to why certain drugs are so expensive to the consumer, however, critics argue that this is not the case. Critics state that the amount of money spent on advertising medication greatly increases the cost, which passed along to the consumer. In fact in 2002, a major drug company spent even more than McDonald’s and the Coca Cola Company on advertising costs. For every dollar spent by pharmaceuticals in direct to consumer advertising the companies generated $4.20 in sales. While the industry cites consumer demand for such a service, the advice given is at times misleading which could be dangerous. Being an informed consumer of health care is critical. Therefore, the next time we see these ads on television, we should think more critically about them and have a conversation with our health care providers about all possible risks and benefits before deciding if, as the ads put it, “is truly right for you.”

Mitch GennusoComment