Twelve years' experience with direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs in Canada: a cautionary tale

PLoS One. 2009 May 27;4(5):e5699. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005699.


Background: Direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA) of prescription drugs is illegal in Canada as a health protection measure, but is permitted in the United States. However, in 2000, Canadian policy was changed to allow 'reminder' advertising of prescription drugs. This is a form of advertising that states the brand name without health claims. 'Reminder' advertising is prohibited in the US for drugs that have 'black box' warnings of serious risks. This study examines spending on DTCA in Canada from 1995 to 2006, 12 years spanning this policy shift. We ask how annual per capita spending compares to that in the US, and whether drugs with Canadian or US regulatory safety warnings are advertised to the Canadian public in reminder advertising.

Methodology/principal findings: Prescription drug advertising spending data were extracted from a data set on health sector spending in Canada obtained from a market research company, TNS Media Inc. Spending was adjusted for inflation and compared with US spending. Inflation-adjusted spending on branded DTCA in Canada grew from under CAD$2 million per year before 1999 to over $22 million in 2006. The major growth was in broadcast advertising, accounting for 83% of spending in 2006. US annual per capita spending was on average 24 times Canadian levels. Celebrex (celecoxib), which has a US black box and was subject to three safety advisories in Canada, was the most heavily advertised drug on Canadian television in 2005 and 2006. Of 8 brands with >$500,000 spending, which together accounted for 59% of branded DTCA in all media, 6 were subject to Canadian safety advisories, and 4 had US black box warnings.

Conclusions/significance: Branded 'reminder' advertising has grown rapidly in Canada since 2000, mainly due to a growth in television advertising. Although DTCA spending per capita is much lower in Canada than in the US, there is no evidence of safer content or product choice; many heavily-advertised drugs in Canada have been subject to safety advisories. For governments searching for compromise solutions to industry pressure for expanded advertising, Canada's experience stands as a stark warning.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Advertising / economics*
  • Canada
  • Community Participation / economics*
  • Drug-Related Side Effects and Adverse Reactions
  • Humans
  • Inflation, Economic
  • Legislation, Drug / economics
  • Marketing of Health Services / economics*
  • Mass Media
  • Prescription Drugs / economics*
  • United States


  • Prescription Drugs