I’d quickly reviewed the literature on direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising after a rather ill-considered call for a ban on it in New Zealand. I concluded that the best case you could make against DTC advertising would have a harder time applying to New Zealand given Pharmac, and that even that best case was empirically questionable given the reasonable existing evidence of consumer benefits.
In short, there’s a pretty big literature on the actual effects of direct-to-consumer advertising of drugs. It’s far from obvious that banning it is a good idea, and, in particular, that it would be a good idea here given the structure of our pharmaceutical market.
This review discusses the role of consumer-directed and physician-directed promotion in the pharmaceutical market, based on the classic conceptual framework of whether such promotion is “persuasive” and/or “informative”. Implications for public health and welfare partly depend on whether, and to what extent, advertising: 1) raises “selective” or brand-specific demand versus “primary” or industry-wide demand; 2) impacts drug costs; and 3) impacts competition. Empirical evidence from the literature bearing on these effects is surveyed. These studies show that pharmaceutical promotion has both informative and persuasive elements. Consumer advertising is more effective at enlarging the market, educating consumers, inducing physician contact, expanding drug treatment, and promoting adherence among existing users. Physician advertising is primarily persuasive in nature, effectively increasing selective brand demand. There is no strong evidence the drug promotion deters entry, and there is some suggestive evidence that it may even be mildly pro-competitive. There is also no strong evidence that either consumer- or provider-directed promotion substantially raises retail-level prices. While all of these effects point to welfare improvements as a result of pharmaceutical promotion, there is also evidence that consumer ads may induce overuse and overtreatment in certain cases. Market expansion, overtreatment and shifting brands for non-therapeutic reasons further raise the concern of a sub-optimal patient-drug match at least for some marginal patients. A comprehensive evaluation of the welfare effects of pharmaceutical promotion requires a balanced assessment of these benefits and costs.
The bar for banning things should be high.