July 21st, 2006

Pawlenty Pushes for Crackdown on Drug Ads

By Jeremy Olson
St. Paul Pioneer Press

He says they can spur needless purchases

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty called Thursday for a two-year federal ban on prescription drug advertising aimed at consumers and for increased state regulation of drug ads that he described as “silly” and “ridiculous.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration was mistaken in 1997 when it loosened advertising restrictions for drug companies, Pawlenty said, and the resulting ads have pushed patients to demand drugs from their doctors instead of doctors recommending the best remedies to their patients.

He suggested the moratorium in a letter to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

“What it is going to do is put Ö the decision-making back to where it should be ó in an informed basis between the patient and the doctor, not having consumers duped by silly ads and butterflies and middle-aged men throwing footballs through tires with a smile on their face,” Pawlenty said. “That’s not how we should make medical decisions.”

Butterflies are featured in a soothing ad promoting Lunestra sleep medication, and the football throwers are in TV ads promoting Levitra, a drug for sexual dysfunction. While many drug ads are heavy on imagery and symbols and light on medical details, there is little doubt they persuade the American public and contribute to skyrocketing health care costs in the United States.

Drug companies have increased their consumer advertising from $800 million in 1996 to $4.2 billion last year. A 2004 study in Health Affairs found that ads compel many patients to ask their doctors for drugs for previously undiagnosed conditions. A 2005 study by the University of Minnesota suggested that doctors generally consented to patients’ demands for brand-name drugs.

Speaking at Pawlenty’s press announcement, Dr. David Luehr of Cloquet, Minn., said patients often pressure him to prescribe sleep aids “when maybe they just need to go to bed on a more regular basis.” Others ask for a $5-per-day constipation drug when what they really need is better diet and exercise, said Luehr, president of the Minnesota Medical Association.

A ban might present constitutional challenges, Pawlenty said, which is why he suggested a moratorium. A drug industry spokesman opposed both approaches.

“A ban on the advertising of prescription medicines would hurt patients’ ability to learn about new medicines in a timely fashion and does not advance quality health care,” said Ken Johnson, senior vice president of PhRMA, the trade association for drug manufacturers.

Even without a moratorium, Pawlenty said, Minnesota legislators should enact drug- ad regulations that mirror federal regulations. That would allow the state to assist the FDA in its enforcement to ensure that drug ads are appropriate. Pawlenty said the FDA has only 40 people handling this type of enforcement, so a state enforcement team of five or 10 people could make a significant difference.

The Republican governor, facing re-election this fall, has tangled with the drug industry before, particularly when he created a program to help Minnesotans buy cheaper Canadian prescriptions.

His opponent, DFL Attorney General Mike Hatch, called the moratorium a “window-dressing” proposal with “zero” chance in a U.S. Congress that is heavily influenced by political contributions from drug companies. He said the needed fix in health care is government price controls and bulk purchasing of prescription drugs.

A spokeswoman for Frist declined to comment on Pawlenty’s request because the senator hadn’t officially received the governor’s letter. She noted that Frist last year proposed that drug companies voluntarily refrain from direct-to-consumer advertising for any new drugs until they have been on the market two years.

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