Promotion of prescription drugs to consumers

N Engl J Med. 2002 Feb 14;346(7):498-505. doi: 10.1056/NEJMsa012075.


Background: Spending on prescription drugs is the fastest growing component of the health care budget. There is public concern about the possibility that direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs will result in inappropriate prescribing and higher costs of care. Guidelines issued in 1997 by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regarding advertising to consumers through electronic media are considered by some to be responsible for unleashing a flood of direct-to-consumer advertising.

Methods: Using data on spending for promotional purposes and sales of prescription drugs, we examined industrywide trends for various types of promotion. We also tracked the relation between promotional efforts and sales over time. Finally, we documented the variation in direct-to-consumer advertising among and within five therapeutic classes of drugs and compared the variation in the intensity of such advertising with variation in the intensity of promotion to health care professionals.

Results: Annual spending on direct-to-consumer advertising for prescription drugs tripled between 1996 and 2000, when it reached nearly $2.5 billion. Despite this increase, such advertising accounts for only 15 percent of the money spent on drug promotion and is highly concentrated on a subgroup of products. Within a therapeutic class, there is marked variation in the intensity of direct-to-consumer advertising, and the amount of such advertising for specific products fluctuates over time. The initial surge in direct-to-consumer advertising preceded the 1997 FDA guidelines that clarified the rules for electronic direct-to-consumer advertising, and thus the 1997 guidelines may not have been the most important reason for the overall increase.

Conclusions: Although the use of direct-to-consumer advertising has grown disproportionately to other forms of promotion, it continues to account for a small proportion of total promotional efforts. Nevertheless, physicians must assist patients in evaluating health-related information obtained through direct advertising.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Advertising / economics
  • Advertising / statistics & numerical data
  • Advertising / trends*
  • Drug Industry / economics
  • Drug Industry / trends*
  • Drug Prescriptions*
  • Guidelines as Topic
  • Humans
  • Pharmaceutical Preparations* / economics
  • United States
  • United States Food and Drug Administration


  • Pharmaceutical Preparations