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Recently, a patient contacted Wanda Filer, a family physician in York, PA, about a mysterious condition.

“She first told me it was O.I.C.,” Filer recalled. “I had no idea what that was.”

Filer’s patient was taking painkillers and had seen a commercial for a drug to treat Opioid-induced Constipation. The ad had given the woman something unnecessary to worry about.

“She actually didn’t have that problem,” said Filer, who is also president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. “Her symptoms were very well controlled.”

Situations like this are among the reasons the American Medical Association is calling for a ban on direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs and medical devices. The group says the commercials are boosting demand for expensive — and sometimes inappropriate — treatments, and fueling the rise in drug prices.

Filer attended the AMA's policy meeting in Atlanta this week, but did not vote in support of the ban, instead saying, "we do believe that the direct-to-consumer advertising ought to be related to the disease only and not mention a product by name." 

Drug prices aren’t based on production or advertising costs, said Ian Spatz, a former Merck executive who’s now a consultant with Manatt Health Solutions. “They’re based on what a company perceives is the value in the marketplace and what people are willing to pay for a medicine,” he said.

Even so, “there are good arguments that it encourages the use of drugs that may be more expensive than alternatives that are available,” Spatz said.  

Julie Donohue, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health, has studied direct-to-consumer drug advertising for 15 years. She said even if the federal government were to ban the ads, “it’s very unlikely the ban would stand up to a legal challenge, which would almost certainly be mounted by both the pharmaceutical industry and media.”

Just imagine the nightly news without Cialis and Humira. Drug companies spend $4.5 to $5 billion a year on direct-to-consumer ads, Donohue said.

If those companies couldn’t advertise directly to us, she said, they’d probably just spend more money pitching our doctors.

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Follow Amy Scott at @amyreports