One of the grey areas that the FDA regulates, but not with the same degree of stringency as it does many pharmaceutical and healthcare products is Direct to Consumer (DTC) marketing. As the name suggests, Direct to Consumer or Direct to Consumer Pharmaceutical Advertising (DTCPA) is a form of marketing in which pharmaceutical companies advertise to its consumers directly over the media such as television and radio. It has gained such prominence and popularity that it is considered the most prevalent form of communication from the medical profession to patients in the US today.
The US is considered the only country, other from New Zealand, to allow pharmaceutical companies to use DTCPA to make claims on the product. The contrast in the situations in these two countries cannot be more glaring, since New Zealand has less than 1.5 percent of the population in the US! In the US, DTCPA is a huge medium, since it is the world’s leading market for healthcare and is also a very consumerist and beauty and health conscious society.
Although around as a medium of marketing since at least 1985; DTCPA emerged as a major force for healthcare and pharmaceutical products promotion around 12 years later, when the FDA decided to relax its rule that made it obligatory for pharmaceutical companies to publish detailed information about the side effects of their products. An idea of how much change this small relaxation has brought about into the industry can be gauged from the fact that as much as $ five billion is spent in the US annually on DTCPA.
The arguments in factor of DTCPA
Direct to Consumer Pharmaceutical Advertising is both strongly defended, if not glorified or revered, and reviled for what it does to the consumer, the pharmaceutical company, and the healthcare sector as a whole.
One of the main arguments in factor of DTCPA is that American society is highly educated and can easily discern whatever information is fed to them. In such a knowledge-driven, knowledge-oriented nation as the US, it is an anachronism of sorts if all channels of information and marketing are open, but only that of pharmaceuticals and healthcare is not.
Proponents of the concept of DTCPA argue that just as advertising for most other products do not automatically result in purchases, the same goes for Direct to Consumer Pharmaceutical Advertising. Only because these wares are being advertised doesn’t mean that people will automatically buy them and start using them blindly without examining the side effects, efficacy and a whole host of attributes that they would if the products were advertised through other mediums.
What the consumerist society needs
For pharmaceuticals, Direct to Consumer Pharmaceutical Advertising is a very strong tool for giving their products a fillip, because in economies such as the US, in which there is a high level of consumer awareness, the endorsement of a brand by a practitioner or a popular character will have the effect of spurring them to ask for the product either with their own physician or practitioner or at the retail outlet at which they buy their pharmaceutical products. In this way, both the practice’s and the retailer’s business goes up.
Major arguments against Direct to Consumer Pharmaceutical Advertising
Another point that opponents of the idea of DTCPA put forth is that by resorting to this medium, pharmaceutical companies may be lining their pockets, but mainly at the expense of the consumer. DTCPA is a contributor to the American economy since it boosts the level of prescriptions and triggers sales of products, but the big question is what kind of products are bought on account of DTCPA. Are these the products that the consumers need? By motivating the consumer to buy mostly unnecessary products, this advertising medium makes an already consumerist economy spend even more on products that are mostly unwanted and serve nothing more than just cosmetic purposes.
This means that the American healthcare sector is bloating more with the use of such products, making the hardworking taxpayer pay for this massive sector, rather than increase awareness of the products nationally. This defeats the purpose of healthcare, which should be about improving the quality of life, instead of splurging on peripheral needs.
A very important point that those who oppose DTCPA offer is that there is almost no way by which the claims made by these ads can be verified. In a popular episode, a medical practitioner was attributed as being the author of a breakthrough study on the ill effects of cholesterol. The call for using a cholesterol lowering drug made by this practitioner had a big effect on the sale of the drug across the US. It later turned out that not only was the report wrongly attributed to the said practitioner; he was not even an authorized practitioner.
Promoting over-the-counter drugs and products
Opponents of DTCPA have another couple of strong points to denounce this practice. They think that these ads promote the use of non-label or over-the-counter drugs, whose efficacy is always debatable. They also believe that this medium reduces pharmaceutical products to the level of any other consumer item with largely misleading information about products that are not absolutely necessary, often promoted by celebrities who have no clue about the real value of the product.
The FDA is seen as being lax when it should be a lot more proactive in this area. This regulatory authority, on its part, says that it is on vigil, carrying out periodic surveys with consumers to gauge the effect of these ads on their buying patterns and of course, health.
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