Harvard Health Ad Watch: What you should know about direct-to-consumer ads – Harvard Health BlogSeptember 20, 2019
If you’re like most people, you’ve seen a ton of direct-to-consumer (DTC) drug ads in recent years. They’re all over television, in magazines, online, on billboards, and slapped on the sides of buses, promoting treatments for arthritis, cancer, heartburn, psoriasis, flagging memory — and more. The deluge of drug ads can be overwhelming. Worse, the information is often incomplete, biased, or confusing. That’s why we’re launching the Harvard Health Ad Watch series to highlight some benefits and problems with health product advertisements. We’ll focus on the evidence behind the ads and show you how — and why — to view them with a skeptical eye.
This post briefly explains direct-to-consumer advertising and FDA regulation, as well as rationales and potential drawbacks for these ads. It also alerts you to words to consider very carefully when advertisers clamor for your attention. In later blogs, we’ll analyze some of the most popular health product ads.
How common are DTC ads for health products?
Almost every country in the world bans DTC ads for health products like medications and procedures. Years ago in the US, drug ads were directed primarily at doctors. But in 1997 the FDA eased restrictions to allow pharmaceutical companies to advertise directly to consumers. With restraints lifted, spending on prescription drug ads soared to more than $6 billion a year (and rising).
Do the ads work? Yes, indeed! Estimates suggest drug sales rise by $4 for every dollar spenton advertising. At health care visits, up to a third of patients ask about a drug adthey’ve seen. The ads have been shown to increase the number of prescriptions written for those products. Does this actually improve patient health? That’s far less clear.
The limited role of the FDA in DTC advertising
FDA regulations require that advertising be accurate and promote only approved drugs for approved conditions (called indications). Additionally, ads must state medication risks and ways to get more information. The FDA’s goal is to assure prescription drug information is “truthful, balanced, and accurately communicated” — a lofty aim that receives mixed reviews.
The rationale for DTC ads
Advocates often present the ads as a chance to
- educate people about conditions and treatments they were unaware of
- improve health by encouraging people to take medications they should be taking
- raise awareness of possible side effects, because regulations require consumers to be referred to a website, magazine, or other site for more information
- lessen stigma surrounding certain conditions, such as erectile dysfunction or constipation
- increase detection of unrelated diseases if patients are inspired by DTC ads to see their doctors.
Potential drawbacks to DTC ads
Unfortunately, experience shows that some DTC ads may
- present incomplete or biased information
- spur people to ask for medications they don’t need
- promote medications before…