The video shown in class, Big Buck, Big Pharma : Marketing Disease and Pushing Drugs, while not presenting anything new, was shocking nonetheless. The extent of the marketing of pharmaceuticals by drug companies is astounding. I personally remember when the number of advertisements for individual drugs was limited to the over-the-counter (OTC) type, but now, pharmaceutical corporations advertise prescription medication directly to the consumer. In fact, there has been a 500% increase in this direct to consumer marketing over at least the last two decades. More money is pouring into these campaigns than into other individual products. For example, according to the video, during Vioxx’s heyday, more money was spent on those ads than for Pepsi.
This intensive marketing of prescription directly to consumers does make the consumer aware of the choices available for treatment options. The line that the pharmaceutical companies use that it’s just educational has some validity. However, there is a danger in providing such information to the masses of people who most likely do not have the training nor educational background required to intelligently determine the proper course of treatment. In the world of physician shopping and giving the customer what he wants, medication could be demanded from willing physicians for any number of conditions as advertised. Also, the probability that a medical condition doesn’t exist is possible, since the advertisement for the medicine gives specific symptoms for which a person may develop psychosomatic conditions.
While providing some educational value to the consumer has already been mentioned, many instances of deception occur. In several cases, major drugs have been re-branded and slightly modified to extended patent protection beyond the statutory limit afforded to a specific drug. These new brands may be functionally equivalent to the older brand, but they have prolonged profit making potential for the pharmaceutical corporation. Minimal investigational or experimental investment has been made, but higher prices are nonetheless charged for them.
Despite the legal requirement to specify all known side effects of a drug, many consumers do not pay attention to them. The advertisements do not dwell nor emphasize drug safety nor do they always mention adverse drug reactions. There appears to be a de-emphasis on safety for the chance to make more profit.
So given the aforementioned problems of the intensive, direct marketing of prescription drugs, should the pharmaceutical corporations be allowed to conduct such marketing strategies? Or should they only be allowed to direct promotional materials to medical professionals? Should they be allowed to market their product like any other corporation markets non-pharmaceuticals?
While there is much to be said about the educational value of such marketing, any promotional material for these drugs should be directed towards the primary users of the information, not necessarily of the product. The primary users of the information are the medical professionals licensed to dispense medication. That being said, the methods for promoting prescription medications to health professionals should be regulated. While regulation can never be a panacea for all possible interactions between corporate entities and individual people, the stakes are too high with medications: misdiagnosis, over medication, adverse reactions, misuse and other side effects can be lethal. The safety of individual members of society is paramount.
The educational value of the current marketing efforts could be delivered by requiring all pharmaceutical corporations who desire to sell their products within the country to contribute substantive medical information as well as operating funds to public access databases. Such databases would contain in plain language as well as in medical jargon, information that the public and medical profession could use to evaluate effectiveness and safety of their product. It also would streamline the marketing efforts of the drug companies, allowing them to invest time and money in finding new drugs.