The unhealthy reality: Drugs advertised on TV have the least benefit – Hopkins analysis of a $6 billion industry

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The drugs most advertised on TV are also the least effective, according to a major analysis.

Johns Hopkins University researchers found that spending on prescription drug promotion reached $131 million in 2020. Ninety-two of the 135 drugs considered, or 68%, were judged to have little health benefits.

Dr Michael DiStefano, the study’s lead author, said: “The findings suggest that the shift of promotional dollars to direct-to-consumer advertising potentially reflects a strategy to drive patient demand for drugs that clinicians would be less likely to prescribe.”

“When a consumer sees these ads on TV or on social media, they really need to think about whether this is the best medicine for them and have a conversation with their provider.”

The findings come amid lingering ethical questions about TV drug advertising and come just weeks after a Harvard study found a similar discrepancy between the amount spent on medical ads and the benefits the drugs provide to patients.

Yervoy creators spent 97.6% of its promotional budget on DTCA advertising

At least 68% of the 135 drugs included in the analysis, among the top-selling prescription drugs in 2020, were rated as offering little added benefit

The Johns Hopkins team started with a list of 150 of the top-selling drugs in 2020. But 16 lacked key clinical data and key covariates, leaving them with 134 data sets.

The median proportion of promotional spend allocated to direct-to-consumer advertising by pharmaceutical companies was 13.5%.

Total industry spending on direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA) through mediums such as TV, radio and print ads reached a staggering $6 billion in 2016, a huge jump from 1, $3 billion spent in 1996.

Top advertising spenders included antibody Gammagard Liquid which channeled 99.9% of its promotional budget to DTCA, followed by Yervoy for melanoma with 97.6% of its promotional budget to DTCA and sclerosis treatment in Ocrevus plates with 97.4% spent on DTCA.

Massive corporate spending on advertising is usually effective.

The researchers found that a large amount spent on advertising was associated with a higher proportion of patients requesting these specific drugs and doctors prescribing them.

Dr Gerard Anderson, lead author of the study, said: ‘It comes down to a consumer issue, not necessarily a political issue.

“Another consideration is that the United States does not currently evaluate prescription drugs.

“Imagine if the drug advertisements you saw on TV were to tell you how well the drug performed compared to alternative drugs for the same disease.”

“It might change your interest in drugs.”

The report was published in JAMA magazine.

The researchers relied on the IQVIA database, a dataset that projects US national estimates of drug sales, to identify top-selling drugs.

When it came to assessing the additional benefit of each, they followed the criteria used by health technology assessment agencies in France and Canada – the Haute Autorité de Santé and the Conseil d’examen the price of patented medicines, respectively. The drugs they considered were used in these countries as well as in the United States.

Apart from New Zealand, the United States is the only country that allows this type of advertising thanks to lax restrictions from the Food and Drug Administration.

France assigns five possible ratings of additional benefit: major, significant, moderate, minor and none, while Canada uses four categories: revolutionary, substantial, moderate, slight/none.

Ninety-two of the 135 drugs, including 68% with an assessment of clinical benefit, were rated as having little added benefit.

More than half of the top 150 drugs have been approved since 2012 and account for 60% of all sales in the United States.

2020, the first year the coronavirus has plagued the United States, has seen an increase in the proportion of people interested in their health and well-being, a product of fear of being infected.

Overall, around 50% of US consumers now say wellness is a top priority in their daily lives, up from 42% in 2020, according to a McKinsey survey.