Banning drug ads is the same as censorship

We've all seen the television commercials for prescription drugs that come on during your favorite show. Some — for certain maladies rarely discussed at the family dinner table — have become standard grist for late-night comics. But beyond the jokes, there's a serious debate in Congress — where some are proposing that such ads be banned.

That would be a mistake. Despite the occasional cringe-inducing moment, the ads have helped millions of people get better medical treatment. This flow of information to patients and consumers should not be stopped.

Advertising for prescription drugs is nothing new. Pharmaceutical manufacturers have long promoted their products. Consumers don't see the vast majority of such efforts, which take the form of ads in professional journals and direct contact with physicians.

The consumer was brought into the equation relatively recently. It began with ads in consumer magazines and newspapers, and intensified after the FDA cleared the way for television advertising in 1997. But even today, it's easy to exaggerate the magnitude of such efforts.

Only 15 drugs, aimed at roughly six conditions, account for more than half of all TV drug ad spending. And contrary to what you might think, most of the conditions addressed are relatively common problems, with allergies and arthritis leading the list.

The FDA regulates the ads, requiring that the drawbacks as well as benefits of each medicine be disclosed. Patients still need a prescription to get these drugs.

Despite the impression left by a few celebrity patients, doctors aren't being stampeded by patients into prescribing drugs they've seen on TV. According to one study, when asked by patients for a specific advertised drug, doctors prescribe it less than 40 percent of the time. Another 20 percent of the time doctors actually prescribe a different drug — presumably one from a competitor of the advertiser.

The most important question is whether those patients who do get a prescription for an advertised drug really need it.

Critics assert that they do not, concluding that the advertising is a waste of health care dollars. Yet, several studies — involving ones about drugs for depression and for high cholesterol levels among other things — indicate that, rather than pump up artificial demand, the ads help identify underdiagnosed and undertreated conditions.

The ads may provide indirect benefits to consumers — even when no drug is prescribed — by spurring awareness of potentially harmful conditions. As economist John Calfee puts it, "No one knows how many lives are saved by those cholesterol drug ads that rouse wives to pester their husbands to stick with the program."

Ultimately, however, even the best studies cannot determine whether a particular treatment is beneficial for any given condition or specific patient. Such determinations, by necessity, need be made on a case-by-case basis. That in itself argues for current rules, which put patients — and their doctors — in charge, rather than regulators and politicians.

But, critics argue, the ads are not balanced. But, if that's true, the best way to counter faulty information is with more information. The goal must be to ensure that flow of medical information provided to consumers is complete and accurate — not to stop that flow.

There is a role for regulation in the process. Drug makers have a responsibility to provide fair and accurate information about their products — and regulators should be vigilant in ensuring that those responsibilities are met.

But censorship is not the answer. Policy-makers should focus on providing more light — by which informed decisions can be made — rather than keeping consumers in the dark.

Gattuso is senior research fellow in regulatory policy at The Heritage Foundation; Web site: