Direct-to-Consumer Drug Advertising: By the Numbers

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Only two countries allow pharmaceutical companies to target consumers through advertising — and the United States is one of them.

The United States and New Zealand are the sole countries worldwide that allow direct-to-consumer (DTC) pharmaceutical advertising. These include ads on TV and radio, in newspapers and magazines (Experience Life does not accept pharmaceutical advertising), billboards, home mailings, and a new growing sector, social media.

In 2015, the American Medical Association (AMA) board of directors voted to recommend banning DTC advertising, because of what then-AMA board chair Patrice Harris, MD, MA, called “concerns among physicians about the negative impact of commercially driven promotions.” In addition, healthcare professionals worry that marketing costs fuel escalating drug prices: “Direct-to-consumer advertising also inflates demand for new and more expensive drugs, even when these drugs may not be appropriate,” Harris argued.

The pharmaceutical industry, asserting that such ads provide valuable information to patients about treatment options, has consistently blocked all efforts to halt DTC advertising.

The following numbers suggest just how much Big Pharma relies on this marketing approach.

1

Rank of pharmaceutical ads among the most prominent public-health information Americans receive, according to a 2011 paper published in the journal Pharmacy and Therapeutics.

$6,400,000,000

Amount healthcare and drug companies spent in the United States on DTC advertising in 2016, according to market-research firm Kantar Media. That ad budget has grown by 62 percent since 2012 — at a time when most other product advertising is down or flat. Most of the ads run on evening news programs, soap operas, and sitcoms aimed at the elderly.

2,058

Number of fine-print words describing side effects that accompany a typical one-page magazine drug ad — about 500 fewer words than a typical feature article in Experience Life. The FDA mandates these warnings, but twice in the past 20 years the agency has relaxed the amount of information required. The ads now only need to list “major risks.”

is an Experience Life deputy editor.

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