A decade of direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs

N Engl J Med. 2007 Aug 16;357(7):673-81. doi: 10.1056/NEJMsa070502.


Background: Evidence suggests that direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs increases pharmaceutical sales and both helps to avert underuse of medicines and leads to potential overuse. Concern about such advertising has increased recently owing to the withdrawal from the market of heavily advertised drugs found to carry serious risks. Moreover, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been criticized for its weak enforcement of laws regulating such advertising.

Methods: We examined industry-wide trends in spending by pharmaceutical companies on direct-to-consumer advertising and promotion to physicians during the past decade. We characterized the drugs for which such advertising is used and assessed the timing of advertising after a drug is introduced. Finally, we examined trends in the FDA's regulation of drug advertising.

Results: Total spending on pharmaceutical promotion grew from $11.4 billion in 1996 to $29.9 billion in 2005. Although during that time spending on direct-to-consumer advertising increased by 330%, it made up only 14% of total promotional expenditures in 2005. Direct-to-consumer campaigns generally begin within a year after the approval of a product by the FDA. In the context of regulatory changes requiring legal review before issuing letters, the number of letters sent by the FDA to pharmaceutical manufacturers regarding violations of drug-advertising regulations fell from 142 in 1997 to only 21 in 2006.

Conclusions: Spending on direct-to-consumer advertising has continued to increase in recent years in spite of the criticisms leveled against it. Our findings suggest that calls for a moratorium on such advertising for new drugs would represent a dramatic departure from current practices.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Advertising / economics*
  • Advertising / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Advertising / trends*
  • Commerce / trends
  • Drug Industry / economics
  • Drug Industry / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Drug Industry / trends*
  • Drug Prescriptions
  • Government Regulation
  • Humans
  • Pharmaceutical Preparations* / economics
  • United States
  • United States Food and Drug Administration


  • Pharmaceutical Preparations