Advertising Drugs: Dickens to the Present

As we have observed in class, drug advertising was a mainstay in the advertisements accompanying many of Dickens’ publications. Today, prescription drugs are heavily advertised on U.S. televisions. However, the “drugs” of Dickens’ day are quite different from the prescription drugs that are advertised in the U.S. While Dickens may have considered drug advertising to be a good source of income, modern drug advertising is highly controversial–so controversial, that the U.S. and New Zealand are the only western nations that allow it.

On average, drug companies spend far more on the sales and marketing of their drugs than they do on research and development. These ads have led to a 71% increase in prescription drug use since 1992, making prescription drug spending the third highest cost in the American health care system. Some people argue that prescription drug ads give patients more agency over their personal healthcare, but this opinion is controversial. Like most advertising, the goal of drug advertising for pharmaceutical companies is to bypass the physician-patient relationship and raise profits, not to bring agency to the consumer. Additionally, these ads generally focus on the benefits of these drugs, only briefly mentioning side effects, may promote drugs before completion of long-term safety tests, and promote over-consumption of unnecessary drugs. Almost all drug advertisements show patients as happy, laughing, or otherwise glamorizing the use of a given drug. Most people realize that these ads don’t necessarily reflect reality, but a subliminal validation of the drug still occurs.

The real question is: should direct-to-consumer prescription drug ads be legal? Overwhelmingly, most western countries seem to think “no,” and the WHO recommends against it. As data has shown, these ads also seem to lead to an increase in prescription drug spending (and therefore overall health costs), which is not a good thing. However, these large pharmaceutical companies are very wealthy and powerful–which is part of the reason why these ads are legal in the first place–and legislation to make these ads illegal will be very difficult to put in place.

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