Industry Prepares for DTC Battle

Jan. 12, 2016 – As criticism of prescription drug direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising continues to be levied by presidential hopefuls and others who blame DTC ads for both higher drug prices and a greater demand for drugs, industry organizations are preparing for what may be a long battle.

Although it is unlikely that any action will be taken to curtail or restrict DTC advertising until after the 2016 election, efforts by the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s), The Advertising Coalition (TAC) and the Coalition for Healthcare Communication (CHC) to defend the merits of DTC advertising are underway. [Editor’s note: The 4A’s is a founding member of both TAC and the CHC.]

In an op-ed piece published last week in PharmExec, “The Creative Impulse: Defending Pharma and Health DTC,” Mollie Rosen, EVP, Agency Relations and Membership at the 4A’s, stated that “much of our efforts in D.C. in 2016 are going to be about fighting the potential ban on pharmaceutical ads.” Rosen points to the American Medical Association’s call for a ban in December 2015, and notes that “We have beaten it back in the past when it has come up, and we will work to do so again and to lobby for the role of advertising in this industry.”

Dick O’Brien, the 4A’s EVP and director of government relations, explained that more troubling than the AMA’s call for a DTC advertising ban are the comments from Hillary Clinton, who has said that if she becomes president she would try to control drug prices and eliminate the tax deduction for prescription drug advertising.

O’Brien told the CHC that a ban on DTC advertising “is unconstitutional on its face, because to ban this one category curtails the free speech rights of prescription drug advertisers. It can’t sustain constitutional muster.” He said if Clinton is elected, she is very likely to pursue a campaign against DTC advertising, but added that “we have fought this fight before and prevailed.”

TAC Executive Director Jim Davidson explained that DTC advertising “continues to be protected speech” under the First Amendment, but he also conceded that members of Congress have expressed some discomfort at DTC ads that air information about such adult-oriented conditions as erectile dysfunction (ED).

However, he noted that DTC ads for ED bring patients in to see their doctors, who often diagnose an underlying – and untreated – condition, such as high blood pressure or diabetes. “There are tremendously positive aspects of any communication that prompts someone to go see their doctor on a regular basis,” Davidson told the CHC. Indeed, O’Brien remarked that even the FDA has said that interactions prompted by DTC ads are beneficial to patients.

Davidson also commented that although the AMA wants to ban DTC advertising, one of its top 10 concerns is patient adherence to drug regimens, which DTC ads actually help to promote. “If you are seeing a doctor for a condition you want to have treated, you are more likely to be adherent to your medication,” he said. “And DTC ads help to remind patients to follow their doctors’ orders.”

As long as there is still a Republican majority in the House and the Senate, Davidson predicts that Congress is not likely to move to limit advertising tax deductions or ban DTC advertising, but he cautions that this scenario could change with the next election and “does not equate to protection.”

Both O’Brien and Davidson noted that politicians and consumers who think DTC advertising drives up drug prices as more patients are treated are missing an important business tenet: the more sales go up, the more prices go down.

To promote the positive patient benefits of DTC advertising, TAC, the 4A’s and the CHC are working with members of Congress and other stakeholders. TAC will continue to hold meetings in the home districts of key Congress members to explain these benefits and directly address members’ concerns.

O’Brien said that CHC members may be called on to attend these meetings. “No one makes the case better than those who are actually doing the DTC advertising, because they can show the value of these ads, how they were created, how they work and how they benefit patients.”

He concluded that industry “has a year to get ready,” but it has “to start now.”

The Coalition for Healthcare Communication is helping its members take action to defend DTC drug advertising by providing them with a DTC Tool Kit that includes talking points and other informational resources (Coalition Tool Kit).