116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
“Ask your doctor if your purchase of this overpriced, patent-protected, copy of a generic drug, with its possible hazardous side effects might be right for our shareholders.”
In 2001 global pharmaceutical sales were $390 billion. In 2020 they were $1.27 trillion.
In 2018 the pharma industry spent $6.46 billion on direct-to-consumer “ask your doctor” TV commercials — enlisting you and me to help boost their sales. (It also spent nearly $30 billion wooing doctors with speaking fees, travel, meals, free samples and “education.”)
When I was young, companies paid people to walk around downtown Iowa City wearing small advertising billboards. Today people pay companies to display company names and logos on their hats, shirts, pants and shoes.
Persuading doctors to write prescriptions for drugs we don’t need may cause harm, or with no more significant benefits than generics, may be another example of our paying corporations to join their sales force.
But it’s much more serious. The West Health Policy Center reports “If current drug pricing trends continue [some patients’ inability to pay those prices] will result in the premature deaths of 112,000 beneficiaries a year, making it a leading cause of death in the U.S., ahead of diabetes, influenza, pneumonia, and kidney disease.”
Once again, “We’re Number One!” We’re number one in defense spending, and percentage of people in prisons — and now “ask your doctor” commercials.
But this time we’re not just number one, we are almost the only one. Only two countries permit advertising drugs directly to consumers. (New Zealand permits it, but robust opposition continues.)
We go to doctors because few patients are equipped to self-diagnose or choose remedies. The American Medical Association made a strong case for banning the ads. It was unsuccessful.
How can this be? Every year between 1999 and 2018 the pharmaceutical industry spent an average of $1.5 billion on political contributions and lobbying.
Isn’t it kind of weird to advertise a product to those legally forbidden to buy it? We can’t go into a drugstore and buy this stuff. We must nag our doctor for the permission slip called a “prescription.”
Want an analogy? Think about TV ads for toys on children’s programs. Aside from a handful of young, energetic entrepreneurs — and kids with advanced degrees in parental manipulation — children cannot buy what the capitalists are advertising.
That’s like big pharma’s “ask your doctor” TV spots — except we’re now the children and the doctors are our parents.
Listening to the FDA-required itemization of side effects makes you question whether it is “right for you” — or anyone else. But you don’t listen, because the commercial keeps telling you, “Oh, look at the squirrel.” See the happy grandparents with their happy grandchildren; the couple fishing or swimming in the lake or lovingly watching the sunset from the deck of their $400,000 summer cabin.
There are things capitalism can do better than public programs. Providing the pharmaceutical portion of our nation’s health care is not one of them.
Nicholas Johnson, former co-director, Institute for Health, Behavior and Environmental Policy, is the author of “What Do You Mean and How Do You Know?” email@example.com