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What 20 years of drug commercials are doing to Americans’ health

The American Medical Association wants the FDA to ban prescription drug commercials, which have been ubiquitous on American television since the late 1990s. In this video, we take a look at both sides of the debate over direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising.

TV ads for prescription drugs are illegal in most countries and only became common in the US in the late 1990s. Now, it's hard to imagine American television without them, but their effects on public health are mixed.

Critics note that access to the masses through TV ads encourages the pharmaceutical industry to cast a wider net for its products and to develop drugs that even fairly healthy people would want to take. Those drugs can expose people to unnecessary risks and discourage alternative, nonpharmaceutical treatments. Advertising campaigns also shift the market toward newer drugs, which are more expensive and possibly more risky.

But if the drug is truly beneficial, then so is the commercial. Why should patients have to rely on their doctors to alert them when new medicines become available? Dr. Richard Kravitz, who authored the only randomized experiment on the effects of direct-to-consumer ads, concluded:

[T]he net social value of DTC advertising and the requests it engenders may depend on the specific clinical and epidemiological context. The benefits of advertising will tend to dominate when the target condition is serious and the treatment is very safe, effective, and inexpensive. Harms are most likely to emerge when the target condition is trivial and the treatment is relatively perilous, ineffective, or costly.

Watch the video above to learn about his experiment, about the history of prescription drug ads in the US, and why they're likely here to stay.

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