On April 18 in Boston, awards were given to a group of individuals whom some credited with raising the national consciousness of the risks of elevated cholesterol, persuading thousands of patients to discuss medical concerns with their physicians and contributing to improving the health of the nation overall.
But not everyone agrees. Their critics say these people helped raise the costs of health care, led to confusion among patients about their treatment and added to the burdens of physicians.
Among those nominated were the marketers who created advertising for products such as Claritin (loratadine), Zyrtec (cetirizine), Nexium (esomeprazole), Lipitor (atorvastatin) and Paxil (paroxetine). Their accomplishments are seen by millions of television viewers, magazine readers and newspaper subscribers. They are the leaders of a relatively new category of prescription drug sales: direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising.
"There is a major difference of opinion," according to Gary Stein, Ph.D., director of federal regulatory affairs for the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists. He explained to Psychiatric Times, "There are those who believe that increased DTC advertising leads to increased patient demand for those drugs and to increased prescribing. On the other side, some people believe that increased DTC advertising causes more patients to go to their health care providers and talk about whatever conditions they may have. If the prescriber happens to write a prescription, that's fine. They also believe that in many cases the physician will prescribe something else."
Direct-to-consumer advertising has become the focal point of a major national debate over pharmaceutical marketing practices. Critics say it is a major factor in the 17.1% increase in prescription drug spending last year, and at least one member of the U.S. Congress has called for its ban.
But supporters of DTC advertising argue that consumers have benefited from the ads. For example, a spokesperson for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America told a Congressional hearing, "In the two years that ads for a medicine for erectile dysfunction [Viagra] have appeared, millions of men have visited their doctors to ask for a prescription. For every million who asked for the medicine, it was discovered that some 30,000 had untreated diabetes, 140,000 had untreated high blood pressure, and 50,000 had untreated heart disease."
Marketers spent $2.8 billion on DTC advertising in 2001, a 12% increase over the year before, according to NDCHealth, an Atlanta-based health care information services company. NDCHealth said the rate of growth in drug promotional cost slowed to 6% from 6.7% in 2000.