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Frist Proposes Voluntary Drug Ad Ban

Advertisers reacted swiftly and, not surprisingly, negatively to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s call for a two-year voluntary ban on direct-to-consumer advertising (like TV ads) for new prescription drugs, as well government prior approval of those ads.

The Tennessee Republican sent a letter to the General Accounting Office Friday asking about the possiblity of giving the Food and Drug Administration "prior review and approval authority for direct-to-consumer advertising."

The Association of National Advertisers said it "strongly opposes" the ban, though it did not respond explicitly to the suggestion of GAO oversight.

"Individual prescription drug companies have the right and responsibility to decide how they will advertise to their consumers," said ANA Executive VP Dan Jaffe, "This critical decision must not, however, be allowed to be distorted by a governmental threat of the imposition of unconstitutional laws."

Frist pointed to the skyrocketing costs of direct-to-consumer ads, saying they can lead to "inappropriate prescribing," which fuels that skyrocket. "[The ads] can also oversell benefits and undersell risks," he said, though adding that "used appropriately, direct-to-consumer advertising can empower patients without inflating need or distorting medical realities."

"Many new prescription drugs provide enormous health benefits and may even be life saving," countered ANA’s Jaffe, whose association represents somw of the biggest drug companies. "The public at-large would be damaged by not receiving this type of information through advertisements on a timely basis."

As evidence, Jaffe cited FDA studies showing that "more than 24 million Americans went to discuss a health issue with their physician for the first time after seeing a prescription drug advertisement."

ANA also says restrictions on DTC drug ads would be found unconstitutional, citing retiring Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, in a prescription drug case decision: "If the first amendment means anything, it means that regulating speech must be a last-not first -resort."

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.