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Prescription drug advertising is good for us all

By Richard E. Ralston
web posted June 20, 2005

When you see a commercial for a new car, a new movie, or a new brand of breakfast cereal it's because the manufacturers of those products want to incur as much advertising expense as possible so they can pass the cost along to you. Then you can't afford to buy their product. Isn't that what they teach in Business 101 as the best way to make big profits? Of course not.

In order to recover the cost of developing and manufacturing a new product, it must be able to find its "market"-those customers who think the product provides a value greater to them than it's price. Manufacturers need to find the optimal number of customers for a new product through advertising. This allows them to sell the product at a lower unit price.

Critics of the pharmaceutical industry demonstrate willful ignorance of the basic principles of economics and marketing. They say firms that develop breakthrough drugs after investing billions of dollars in research are not to be commended but persecuted-because they won't keep quiet about them. Those who attack drug advertising are just looking for an excuse to impose government regulation and price controls. They pretend ignorance of marketing because they want to destroy individual choice and free markets, and replace them with government micro-management of all aspects of health care. They are also conveniently ignorant of other principles, such as "freedom of speech."

Effective advertising of new drugs provides obvious benefits. Most importantly, it informs those with medical conditions about new treatments (including those who may have given up on getting relief). It may motivate them to discuss the condition with a physician for the first time, creating an opportunity for the physician to undertake testing and make a correct diagnosis. The physician may prescribe another medication better suited to the patient's needs. Or, the physician's knowledge of the condition's serious consequences may alter the treatment course instead of just addressing the symptoms reported by the patient.

Critics maintain that it would be better if none of this came about, rather than allow a patient to ask for a drug by name. A patient who rejects the treatment recommend by his doctor to hold out for something he's seen on TV is foolish. A good doctor will prescribe something more appropriate if that is called for. Keeping patients barefoot and ignorant is not the solution. Despite the tireless efforts of pharmaceutical salesmen, physicians in general practice or internal medicine can't possibly keep up with all the features of the many new drugs and how they might apply to every patient. Why shouldn't those who feel the pain be on the lookout for new remedies?

Those who want to eliminate drug advertising, or tax it, or use it as an excuse to impose controls want to eliminate, tax, and control the flow of information to consumers-information far more important than a new light beer.

You'd think that the last group that would want to eliminate advertising is politicians. Yet Senators Ron Wyden and John E. Sununu have proposed bi-partisan legislation to cut the price that the government pays for some of the drugs it gives away. Not all drugs, just the drugs that advertise to consumers. Price controls are destructive enough, but cutting the price just for the people who get them for free is ridiculous. These senators obviously don't know or care about the impact this legislation will have on paying customers in the marketplace.

When you see a commercial for a new drug it offers the potential to make somebody feel better. Let's leave those commercials and the drug companies alone. What would really make us all feel better is less advertising urging us to elect politicians who want to control our lives.

Richard E. Ralston is Executive Director of Americans for Free Choice in Medicine. Please send comments to mail@afcm.org.


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