I still don't think drug ads will include pricing any time soon

So, I was right!

Or maybe I was wrong.

Or perhaps the jury's still out.

In May, when President Trump released his blueprint for lowering prescription drug pricing, I wrote a blog post saying that I didn't see how FDA had authority under existing regulations to mandate the inclusion of prices in the direct-to-consumer (DTC) ads. I further claimed that getting such a requirement in place would either require a new regulation, or more likely new legal authority.

Well, as some of you might have heard, yesterday, the Trump administration released a new proposed rule that would require pharmaceutical companies to include the Wholesale Acquisition Cost (WAC) in television ads.

I'll have much more to say about this proposed rule as the conversation continues. And I can't decide which verdict to make on my earlier prediction.

I want to make one point here that hasn't been mentioned in any of the coverage I've seen so far.

Too frequently people talk about prescription drug advertising in a vacuum. The assumption seems to be that people know absolutely nothing about anything and on to this tabula rasa the promotions from pharmaceutical companies are forced, brainwashing people into storming their doctors' offices to demand prescription drugs.

That's not true. Not even close.

People care about their health. They care about the health of their children, their parents, their spouses, and others. When they have a health issue, they start looking for information about ways to treat that issue, ideally to cure it, or at least to help mitigate the symptoms and severity of the condition.

Their search for information will (I hope) include an investigation of whether a prescription treatment is the right option, but it will also include the crap that's sold on disreputable websites. Their search will include supplements, with all of the appropriate concerns.

This is relevant to the debate about drug pricing because one reason prescription drugs cost much more than these other options is that they work. We know they work because the FDA has evaluated the science behind them and believes that there's good reason to believe they work.

The other reason they're more expensive is because most people have some form of prescription drug coverage from their insurance, and insurance companies are willing to pay far more to keep their policy holders healthy than most consumers are willing to pay out of pocket.

Throughout the CMS's proposed rule, there are repeated discussions about how information about the WAC will enable consumers to make rational decisions about treatment options. The assumption seems to be that consumers are limited solely to trying to decide between prescription drug A and prescription drug B and that knowing the WAC will somehow enable them to make a better decision between the two. All by itself, this is a deeply suspect proposition.

But the more important point I want to make now is that people aren't trying to decide between prescription drug A and B. They're also considering pseudoscience crap C and possibly dangerous supplement D and over-the-counter treatment E and loads of other options as well.

Currently, people don't know how much prescription drugs cost, and maybe that's a good thing because it keeps people from comparing that $84,000 prescription drug to the $75 pseudoscience product. Acting as if the price is the sole, or even the primary, factor that consumers should use to evaluate treatment options ignores that most of the evaluation doesn't occur purely among different prescription treatments, and it also rarely involves a qualified health care professional.

It's most often a person, maybe a family, alone, or talking with their friends trying to figure out what's wrong and how they can fix it.

The response to including pricing in prescription drug ads could be, as I've said repeatedly, that people are scared away from prescription drugs that would be relatively affordable for the individual.

It also could be that the crap starts getting more expensive. After all, if people grow accustomed to seeing health treatments advertised with a list price of $100,000 or more, then they won't necessarily notice that the item being advertised is a dangerous supplement or pure pseudoscience.

I've noticed over the past few years that more and more ads for supplements have started mimicking prescription drug advertising. They make their logos look like prescription drug logos. They include a risk statement in their ads. To someone who isn't trained in knowing the difference, you could be forgiven for thinking there's no difference between these products and prescription treatments.

Is it really a stretch to think that requiring prescription treatments to include prices will result in those pseudoscience products doing the same, or to worry that the prices they start seeing as their comparator is the now revealed price of the prescription treatment?