Politics & Policy

Big Brother’s Prescription

Does John Edwards know more than your doctor?

Does John Edwards know more than your doctor? Or you, for that matter?

These are two questions that ought to be posed to the Democratic candidate for president — who has been banging the kettle drums on the campaign trail lately demanding that laws be passed limiting what information about new drugs and treatments may fall before your eyes.

He wants to ban — or at least, heavily regulate and limit — the way that medicines can be advertised.

Instead of commercials that let people know of the existence of a newly developed drug or treatment, only doctors would be allowed to convey that information for at least two full years.

After that point, if elected, Edwards might permit some word to get out. Maybe.

Edwards argues this government-imposed censorship would “prevent television ads from driving consumers to drugs that haven’t been proven safe” — ignoring the fact that his proposed ban would apply exclusively to drugs that have full FDA approval.

He also asserts that an advertising ban would lower costs for consumers, claiming that the money spent by the pharmaceutical industry on advertising adds to the price of drugs.

But there are several flaws with the senator’s logic — as well as numerous factual misrepresentations that need to be corrected.

First, there’s the bubbling elitism of Edwards’ notion that he and other legislative solons know better than the peon masses what medicines and treatments they ought to be made aware of. Implicit in his attack on medical advertising is the belief that the average person is too simple-minded to handle the information. We’re all being manipulated into seeking medicines we don’t really need; pestering our doctors with questions that are too vacuous for them to waste their time answering.

Well then, why not also ban other types of advertising? Or all advertising? If people are too susceptible to being misled by “big pharma” — what about Detroit’s Big Three?

It’s ridiculous, of course.

People know that ads are just that — ads. They convey information consumers use to inform themselves; as the basis of a broader inquiry into what the options are. A Ford ad, for example, doesn’t mean the viewer will buy a Ford. It merely lets the consumer know that Ford is offering “x,” while Toyota might have “y.” The consumer is thereby empowered to weigh his options, and choose the one that best fits his needs.

Secondly, by denying consumers access to information, Edwards would limit the options available to those consumers. You can’t choose that which you’re unaware of. Your doctor might recommend “x” — but since you haven’t heard about “y,” you have no way of knowing an alternative is even available.

And it’s possible that it could be an alternative that’s better suited to your particular situation. For example, among the current drugs for treating high cholesterol, there are different cautions about interactions with other drugs the patient may be taking — or side effects — that you probably want to be aware of before you begin a treatment regimen. Perhaps your doctor would advise you of all your options — and the pros and cons of one vs. the other. But if he doesn’t — and if you’ve never heard about the existence of an alternative – you’re left in the dark.

Which, apparently, is just where Sen. Edwards wants you to be.

Access to information can never be a bad thing — “commercial” or not. If that weren’t true, why is the government that Sen. Edwards wants to use as a cudgel to beat the drug industry into the ground spending millions every year on ads of all kinds — from “Just Say No” anti-drug spots to abstinence education to “click it or ticket” seat belt campaigns?

If giving consumers access to information about the dangers of smoking is good, why is it bad to provide them information about a newly developed drug to help you quit smoking?

Without advertising, most laymen would never know about these new pills.

There would also be far less competitive pressure to develop alternatives, for the very same reason. Right now, people are almost universally aware of drugs like Viagra, and the success of Viagra prompted the development of alternatives such as Levitra and Cialis. It’s the same with drugs to treat arthritis — or ease the side effects of chemotherapy. Average people now have access to information on an unprecedented scale and scope — and are better-informed consumers as a result. We also have treatment options earlier generations could only dream about.

Sen. Edwards may be well intentioned. But that doesn’t change the fact that he’s wrong. His “plan” would be a disaster not just for the pharmaceutical industry, but for every one of us who wants to be a better-informed consumer — instead of a passive recipient of whatever information self-appointed elites such as Sen. Edwards deign to let us have.

 – Peter J. Pitts is president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest and a former FDA associate commissioner.

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