Selling Side Effects: Big Pharma’s Marketing Machine

Michelle Llamas, Drugwatch: July 2016

Convincing people they are sick and need a drug is a multi-billion dollar industry. In 2015, Big Pharma dropped a record-breaking $5.4 billion on direct-to-consumer (DTC) ads, according to Kantar Media. And it paid off for Big Pharma. The same year, Americans spent a record $457 billion on prescription drugs. The U.S. and New Zealand are the only countries where DTC is legal. Americans also pay more for drugs and devices than any other country.

The bulk of these ads appear on TV at a rate of 80 ads per hour of programming, according to Nielsen. Behind the drug and device ads saturating TV, radio and digital media are hidden costs and devastating side effects that companies don’t advertise, and critics say the ads drive up drug prices and erode the patient-doctor relationship.

With the price of drugs skyrocketing, politicians and health-care providers question Pharma’s DTC spending, which exceeds money spent on research and development. Even presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton called for an end to tax breaks for drug ads and for tougher regulations.

But the money spent on DTC is just one small cog in Big Pharma’s well-oiled marketing machine. Companies spend billions more on getting doctors to write prescriptions for their expensive brand-name drugs or devices for uses not approved by the Food and Drug Administration — a controversial practice called off-label marketing. […]

“Americans tend to think newer is better. If it costs more, therefore it’s better. If it’s new and it costs more, then certainly it is better,” Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research, told Drugwatch. “They sometimes think that the FDA only approves new drugs if they are better. There is no requirement in the law, nor does the FDA require that a new product be better. I’ve heard FDA officials say, ‘We’ve approved this drug. It doesn’t mean we recommend it.” […]

“Obviously, the companies are paying a lot of money for these ads for a reason. They know it affects how many people take these drugs and how many prescriptions are written. And to pretend that they don’t know what the impact is seems disingenuous at best.” […]

“If the real goal is to educate, they wouldn’t look like this. The goal is to persuade. These ads educate people as much as the ads for the GAP or ads for makeup educate. It is educating you to tell you that this product exists and that it’s great.” […]

“The FDA has written policies that sound good, but the reality is very different from the written policies.” […]

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