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Consumer Desire Drives Drug Costs Advertising Fuels Increased Demand

Article excerpt

Byline: Sarah Skidmore, Times-Union staff writer

If you long to play ball in the yard, run through fields of wheat or swing from a tree -- beware of the costs.

Responding to the images marketed to you in prescription drug ads may be bad for your economic health.

The American public wants new and more effective drugs. But their growing desire and willingness to buy them may be driving up consumers' own costs.

Between 1999 and 2000, prescription drug spending in the United States increased $20.8 billion, according to the National Institute of Health Care Management Research and Education Foundation. And the primary reason for the jump is because consumers are filling more prescriptions for a handful of expensive medications, many of which are touted in advertisements.

The pricing is what the market will bear, experts say. And given the seemingly insatiable public desire for prescription drugs, pricing has not and will not hit a ceiling any time soon, experts say.

Americans are definitely consuming prescription drugs en masse: If the total number of prescriptions distributed last year was spread evenly to all of the U.S. population, every person would have filled 10.4 prescriptions during 2000.

Some of the old rules of health care have passed, many of which kept consumers out of the health care decision-making process. But now that people hold a more powerful position in the market, are they digging their own hole with prescription drug costs?

Direct-to-consumer advertising is often criticized for being the primary fuel for consumers' desire.

The popularity of the advertising has piqued interest among consumers and regulators. Both Congress and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are scheduled to review the effect of the ads on treatment outcomes, consumer use and prescription pricing.

The ads are easy to find -- look in magazines, on television and even at ballparks. IMS Health, a pharmaceutical research company, estimates U.S. pharmaceutical companies invested $1.3 billion in direct-to-consumer advertising in the first half of 2000, up from $907 billion for the same period during 1999.

"Direct-to-consumer advertising is a relatively new phenomenon," said Donna Cary, a Merck spokesman.

The FDA loosened its regulations on the advertising in 1997, which led to the great influx of ads. And some consumers respond actively to the ads.

"It's the way they make you feel -- you think you have to have it," said Deborah Harper of Jacksonville. She is on five medications and says she has asked her physician on several occasions about drugs she has seen advertised.

In addition to being popular, these drugs are on average twice as expensive as all other drugs, according to IMS Health, a pharmaceutical research company.

The top-selling 50 drugs in 2000 accounted for 30 percent of the increases in drug spending, according to the National Institute of Health Care Management, most of which are advertised. The effectiveness of the slick, consumer-friendly ads is no surprise to some experts.

"We live in a Coke culture. And we have for many years or decades," said Steve Findlay, director of research for the NIHCM.

The onslaught of ads is playing a big role in creating a consumer-focused market, Sterns said. She said until the advent of DTC, prescription drugs were "one of the only commodities produced in which a consumer has no voice in purchasing. It's causing the consumers to be more in the driver's seat."

Proponents say direct-to-consumer advertising empowers the consumer and creates disease awareness. But opponents say it is needlessly driving patients to prescription drugs.

"I leave it up to my doctor, but I've been tempted a couple of times," Paul Hesson, 60, who is on three medications, said of DTC ads -- mainly those he sees in his AARP magazine.

The NIHCM estimates the 25 drugs with the most ad spending behind them in 1999 account for almost half of the increase in drug spending. …