UPDATED: Just say no to drugs (advertising): AMA votes to ban DTC ads


The American Medical Association is done with DTC. In a historic vote on Tuesday, the physicians' group voted for a ban on all direct-to-consumer advertising for drugs and medical devices.

Patrice Harris

The reason? AMA board chair-elect Patrice Harris said physicians are concerned "about the negative impact of commercially-driven promotions and the role that marketing costs play in fueling escalating drug prices," in a news release.

The group went on to blame DTC advertising for inflating demand for new and expensive--and potentially unnecessarily prescribed--drugs.

The AMA's newly adopted policy will include a marketing strategy of its own. The association plans to create a physician task force and launch an advocacy campaign. The mission: To champion drug availability and affordability by "demanding choice and competition" and pushing for transparency about drug costs from pharma companies.

It's no secret that physicians have mixed feelings about DTC advertising. Study after study has shown that while some physicians complain that the ads interfere with their jobs, others acknowledge benefits, such as better patient awareness.

Some physicians did speak up against the ban at the AMA meeting in Atlanta, before the Monday vote, reported Bloomberg BNA. At least one doctor noted that some patients have recognized their symptoms thanks to the advertising. Others protested that backing a ban could set a precedent of infringing on free speech. Others worried that a pharma DTC advertising ban might lead to drugmakers calling for a boomerang ban on ads from doctors and healthcare providers. Still, in the end, the majority of the "few hundred member" delegates voted to approve the policy.

Existing AMA policy already lays out a long list of strict rules and regulations it expects from pharma companies that create the ads and the governing body overseeing the ads, the FDA. That current policy concludes by reserving the right "to monitor DTC, including new research findings, and work with the FDA and the pharmaceutical and medical device industries to make policy changes regarding DTC, as necessary." The AMA delegates did not rescind the current policy as part of the vote, BNA noted.

Of course, while the AMA is an influential trade group, only Congress can ban drug advertising. As the FDA notes on its website: "Prohibiting direct-to-consumer prescription drug advertising would require an act of Congress to change the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and would also raise complex freedom of speech issues."

Dr. Peter Rheinstein

Dr. Peter Rheinstein, an AMA delegate who was at the meeting, said the issue was added to the docket late and was initially posed not as a ban on DTC advertising, but rather as research to study the question "Should drug advertising be banned?"

He said he voted no and spoke up at the meeting about why. For 16 years, including 8 years as director of what is now OPDP, he worked on regulation of prescription drug promotion at the FDA. He holds both a medical and a law degree. Rheinstein said he pointed out to those gathered that there were already a number of court decisions that ruled against a broad ban on advertising and that any restrictions would have to be narrowly focused to a particular problem. An overall ban on DTC advertising, he noted, would be fundamentally unconstitutional.

He estimated that more than 510 of the AMA's 541 delegates were at the conference, and while he did not know the exact vote, he said more than half but likely fewer than two-thirds voted for the policy. The vote came after many physicians testified about the negative impact DTC advertising has on their practices and patient relationships, he said. Some physicians expressed concern that a ban on DTC advertising would interfere with efforts to increase vaccination rates, he said, while others noted that DTC advertising can help patients recognize disease and seek treatment.

"This tells the world just how frustrated doctors are with direct to consumer advertising," Rheinstein said.

The pharma industry itself said a ban would circumvent the benefits of advertising drugs to consumers. "Research shows that accurate information about disease and treatment options makes patients and doctors better partners," the trade group PhRMA said in an email statement to FiercePharmaMarketing.

"Beyond increasing patient awareness of disease (including undiagnosed conditions) and available treatments, DTC advertising has been found to increase awareness of the benefits and risks of new medicines and encourage appropriate use of medicines," PhRMA went on to say. "In addition, DTC advertising encourages patients to visit their doctors' offices for important doctor-patient conversations about health that might otherwise not take place."

- read the AMA press release
- see the Bloomberg BNA article

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Editor's note: This story was updated with comments from an AMA delegate.