Lawmakers & Regulators Tackle “Bad Drug” Ads

“Bad drug” ads often target seniors with misinformation about prescription medications, with their scare tactics costing viewers their health – even their lives. Now the Federal Trade Commission is highlighting the importance of protecting consumers from questionable advertising practices.

In a recent letter to members of Congress, federal regulators reiterated the need to shield consumers from “misleading health-related information.” The letter also followed up on official warnings that the Federal Trade Commission issued last year to several lawyers and data aggregators about “deceptive or unfair” ads. All recipients have committed to heeding regulators’ concerns, the commission confirmed.

Regulators also reported securing a key company’s commitment to “clear and conspicuous” advisories for future ads – audio and visual messages encouraging patients not to stop taking their medication without first talking to their doctor. The company further agreed to avoid framing the ads as “medical alerts or government sanctioned messages.”

This progress report may be encouraging to members of the congressional Energy & Commerce Committee. In a November letter, committee leaders wrote to the Federal Trade Commission raising concerns about “schemes to generate lawsuits and revenue at the expense of consumers’ health.”

But consensus alone isn’t enough to protect patients. Some states have moved forward with their own regulations. Both Texas and Tennessee passed legislation in 2019 to reform legal medical advertising and protect patient health. West Virginia passed similar legislation this year. Lawmakers in Florida, Kentucky, Iowa and other states also considered patient protection measures in 2020. 

Policy responses reflect growing controversy about the advertising approach. In 2016, $149 million was spent on “bad drug” ads. The American Medical Association adopted a resolution the following year calling for legislation and regulations to protect against unethical advertising. 

Lawmakers have expressed concern that the ads “target and deceive vulnerable Americans,” presenting “a serious threat to public health and safety.” Health care providers agree. Nearly six in 10 providers reported that “bad drug” ads have led a patient to stop taking a medication without consulting them. Some patients suffered dire consequences.

Widespread reform could help curtail misleading “bad drug” ads, which can frighten patients into second-guessing the very medical regimen that keeps them safe and healthy.

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