Health Care Reform Needs Media Reform

Personal Health

American broadcasters, magazines, newspapers and other publishers take in more than four billion dollars a year in drug advertising. The drug money is a rare bright spot in an otherwise dismal downward revenue spiral for media of all types. Last year was a horrible year for advertising spending in this country, which fell 12.3 percent. Spending in seven of the top ten leading ad categories fell compared with 2008. The only exceptions were in the industry categories of telecommunications, food and candy, and pharmaceuticals, which showed the largest increase of all.

Wonder why? Perhaps it's because the US is one of only two countries in the world — along with New Zealand — that permits direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising of prescription drugs. Yes, your country is one of only two outliers when it comes to allowing those incredibly annoying and ubiquitous "ask-your-doctor" spots. But if you were hoping a modicum of media reform, aimed at reducing health care costs and delivering better services, might be packaged among all the other goodies and giveaways in the Obama Administration's forthcoming health care reform bill, you can forget it. Lobbyists long ago succeeded in turning back all efforts to end the special interest business-tax deductions that Big Pharma drug makers can take for advertising.

In an early round of reform negotiations, the drug industry actively considered giving up the advertising deductibility as part of the $80 billion dollar deal they made with the Obama crowd to reduce pharmaceutical spending over ten years. But media lobbyists quickly swooped in and killed the idea, turning back nascent efforts in both the House and the Senate. "Advertising deductibility safe!" American Advertising Federation executive Clark Rector wrote in a press release late last year, when the deal went down. Ending the tax break for drug spots "would be a disastrous choice, both economically and politically."

Supporters like Rector claim the commercials not only educate consumers but also save lives. But critics contend they simply drive up health care costs by encouraging you to take expensive and sometimes less effective drugs — often for newly invented diseases!

Prior to 1998, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prevented pharmaceutical companies from shopping prescription drugs to the public. A 2006 Government Accountability Office investigation found some of the newly permitted marketing efforts "false and misleading" and faulted the FDA--which is responsible for oversight--for failing to maintain standards of accuracy and to protect the public. Some of the products can cause liver or kidney damage, high blood pressure or other adverse effects that would have to be countered with still more drugs--each with its own side effects and risky interactions.

But as In These Times reported, "One undeniable side effect of DTCs is increased sales and profits for drug manufacturers." Every dollar the industry spends on DTC advertising yields an additional four dollars in drug sales, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation - billions of dollars in total. A majority of doctors report that DTC ads caused patients to "confuse relative risks and benefits" or to believe the drugs "worked better than they do," according to the FDA. Almost three out of four said patients were spurred by the ads to ask for unnecessary prescriptions and to expect a prescription for every condition. Nonetheless, despite their ambivalence about efficacy, safety and appropriateness, doctors turned down requests for a brand-name prescription only 2 percent of the time, the FDA found.

Spending on prescription drugs is America's most rapidly increasing healthcare cost. One would think that a four billon dollar giveaway to Big Media and Big Pharma, which drives up health care costs that are already spiraling out of control, would be part of 'health care reform' aimed in part at cutting costs. Think again - when it comes to lobbies and politicians, apparently no price is too high to preserve their privilege and power...

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