At an interim meeting of the American Medical Association this week, physicians adopted a new position on direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs and medical devices, calling for an outright ban of the practice.

“Today’s vote in support of an advertising ban reflects concerns among physicians about the negative impact of commercially driven promotions, and the role that marketing costs play in fueling escalating drug prices,” said AMA Board Chair-elect Patrice A. Harris, M.D., M.A. “Direct-to-consumer advertising also inflates demand for new and more expensive drugs, even when these drugs may not be appropriate.”

In a statement, AMA noted that the United States and New Zealand are the only two countries where direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs is allowed. Citing data from Kantar Media, AMA said DTC ad spending increased 30% over the last two years to $4.5 billion.

New AMA policy also calls for convening a physician task force and implementing an advocacy campaign for greater transparency in prescription drug prices and costs, and to promote prescription drug affordability.

The FDA’s Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising and Communications (DDMAC) is responsible for the regulation of DTC advertising, which Congress first authorized in 1962. A cultural shift in patients becoming more involved in medical decision making with their providers—combined with a generally favorable environment in Congress toward the pharmaceutical industry in the 1980s—led to an increase in DTC that has has continued for more than 30 years.

Our Take: In a strongly worded statement, AMA took direct aim at the pharmaceutical industry. In addition to the call for a ban on drug advertising, it said it would “encourage actions by federal regulators to limit anticompetitive behavior” and that it would closely watch mergers and acquisitions to assess the impact of such actions on drug prices.

We don’t doubt the AMA’s sincerity. No one dislikes DTC ads more than physicians. But the association’s timing is interesting. Last month, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a report saying the high cost of prescription drugs is the public’s top health care priority, also noted in their statement. Last week, IMS Health said drug spending would increase 30% to $1.3 trillion in 2020—a story that was picked up by every major news outlet.

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have both come out publicly against drug prices, calling for government intervention. 

And it isn’t only the Democrats. Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio last month told a crowd of supporters: “It’s a new issue that’s emerged over the last few years but it’s a significant one, because it threatens to bankrupt our system.”

“As far as Big Pharma is concerned, you know, they’re in it to make money,” Ben Carson said recently. “And I understand that. But we need to have some alternative ways, because we need to be able to take care of our people.”

As unlikely as it seems, pharmaceutical pricing and regulation could become a bipartisan presidential campaign issue. 

The pharmaceutical industry will have to rely upon a First Amendment argument to keep DTC alive, should policymakers make limiting or banning the marketing practice a priority. It is difficult to imagine the industry suggesting that advertising doesn’t increase drug prices. And it’s even harder to envision consumers being on the side of drug companies—just ask how much they like seeing the same commercials repeatedly when they’re watching Sunday football.

If drug pricing becomes a campaign issue, look for a ban on DTC as being the most politically tenable position for policymakers and politicians to take. That position would address the issue of rising prices without calling for the more draconian policy of price controls.

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