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Doctors want to ban drug ads on TV. Are they focused on the wrong problem?

The American Medical Association just called for a ban on prescription drug ads aimed at consumers.

"The United States and New Zealand are the only two countries in the world that allow direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs," the AMA's announcement read. "Advertising dollars spent by drug makers have increased by 30 percent in the last two years to $4.5 billion, according to the market research firm Kantar Media."

The AMA, which represents doctors, argues that "a growing proliferation of ads is driving demand for expensive treatments despite the clinical effectiveness of less costly alternatives."

The idea here seems to be that ads are swaying patients to demand more expensive treatments from doctors that aren't necessarily more effective. So, the theory goes, if you ban ads, doctors would have more leeway to prescribe drugs based on effectiveness. Everyone would win.

Except the AMA missed something here — direct-to-consumer advertising is only a small part of how pharma tries to drum up demand for its products. The overwhelming majority of drug company marketing is actually targeted at doctors themselves. This persuasion mainly comes in the form of "detailing": face-to-face promotional meetings between pharma representatives and doctors (which are basically sales pitches on new products), as well as taking doctors to meals and giving them gifts.

Pew Trusts

In 2012, the pharmaceutical industry spent more than $27 billion on drug promotion: $24 billion was spent on advertising to physicians and around $3 billion to consumers. It's strange that the AMA is concerned only about the latter.