The American Medical Association (AMA) is calling for an end to pharmaceutical companies’ direct-to-consumer advertising, saying the billions of dollars spent each year on the ads lead consumers to demand prescriptions that are often unnecessary and potentially dangerous.
The AMA, which represents about a quarter of a million physicians nationwide, voted this week to take action against drug companies that heavily promote their treatments to consumers, arguing that such advertisement “inflates demand for new and more expensive drugs, even when these drugs may not be appropriate,” said AMA board chair-elect Patrice Harris in a statement.
Case in point, manufacturers of testosterone replacement therapies have used direct-to-consumer advertisements and websites to speak directly to men about low testosterone, even creating a new condition they called “Low T,” with symptoms such as low sex drive, muscle loss, weight gain and mood swings. The ads encouraged men to ask their doctors if they could be candidates for testosterone treatment. The hormones, however, are indicated for men who do not produce enough testosterone due to injury or disease, a condition known as hypogondism.
But AbbVie, maker of AndroGel, and Eli Lilly & Co., maker of Axiron, spent a combined $105.6 million in 2012 and $151.8 million in 2013 on television ads that spoke directly to men about “Low T,” never mentioning that the treatment was for a bona fide disease. The investment paid off, with 2.3 million prescriptions for testosterone in 2013, up from 1.3 million in 2010.
Testosterone makers rolled in profits, but consumers ended up with the short end of the deal. Recent studies have shown that many men who were prescribed testosterone supplements were never tested to determine if they needed treatment. Even more worrisome was that studies were beginning to emerge that showed use of the drugs could be dangerous and even deadly for some men.
One study found that men who used testosterone therapy were 30 percent more likely to have a heart attack, stroke or die after three years of use. Another study found that men had a significant increased risk of heart attack and stroke in the first three months of testosterone treatment.
Earlier this year, the FDA ordered the testosterone manufacturers to update the labels of their hormone products to help prevent overprescribing. Now, the AMA is taking aim at pharmaceutical companies like makers of testosterone treatments.
The AMA says it plans to convene a task force to investigate drug ads and launch an advocacy campaign to promote more transparency in prescription drug costs and more competition within the drug industry. The AMA said it will also encourage the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to limit actions that prevent competitiveness within the pharmaceutical industry.
The AMA’s vote has no binding power without congressional authorization. But the organization has a powerful lobbying presence in Washington, which means prescription drug ads could be an election issue in 2016.