Pharma Spending on Drug Ads to Consumers Quadruples Over 20 Years

Pharma Spending on Drug Ads to Consumers Quadruples Over 20 Years

The amount of money pharmaceutical companies have spent on prescription drug ads directed at consumers has more than quadrupled over the last 20 years, according to a new analysis.

In 1997, drug companies spent $1.3 billion on direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising for prescription drugs. In 2016, that figure reached $6 billion, according to a report published in JAMA. In 1997, there were 79,000 drug ads aimed at consumers. In 2016, that figure reached 4.6 million, which included 663,000 TV commercials. There was a shift toward advertising biologic drugs and cancer immunotherapies, which are among the most expensive treatments.

In addition, over the 20-year period, consumer out-of-pocket spending on prescription drugs soared from $116.5 billion to $328.6 billion.

The analysis also found that the DTC ad spend on disease awareness campaigns increased from $177 million to $430 million over the 1997-2016 period. These types of ads discuss diseases that are treated by a drugmaker’s medication and then suggest that a patient talk to their doctor about treatment options.

The report also found that pharmaceutical companies boosted their marketing spend to doctors as well. This marketing spend, which includes free drug samples, education about new drugs, speaking fees and free meals, increased from $15.6 billion to $20.3 billion.

Interestingly, while the number of drug ads reported to the FDA for potential misleading marketing nearly tripled from 34,182 in 1997 to 97,252 in 2016, the number of violations fell to 11 from 156 over the same period.


Jonathan Block

Jonathan Block

Jonathan Block is an associate editor at BioCentury, which provides news and information about the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. Prior to joining BioCentury in 2019, Jonathan worked for MedShadow as content editor. He has been an editor and writer for multiple pharmaceutical, health and medical publications, including The Pink Sheet, Modern Healthcare, Health Plan Week and Psychiatry Advisor. He holds a BA from Tufts University and is earning an MPH with a focus on health policy from the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy.


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