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Pioneer Editorial: Election-year drug ad idea still good idea

Granted it's an election year, and politicians will go about anywhere to elicit public support -- thrown their way -- on an issue.

But Gov. Tim Pawlenty may have something in his pitch Thursday to congressional leaders for a two-year federal moratorium on prescription drug advertising.

We've all seen the television ads -- the incessant smile on the guy in his swimming trunks happy that he's now noticed by women, the line-up of people with bare midriffs with some kind of intestinal ailment, or the woman who tosses and turns and can't sleep.

When U.S. drug companies are asked why their prices are so much higher than in other countries, the No. 1 response is the American public needs to pay for research and development of the drugs. But the underlying No. 2 reason is the high cost of marketing.

Pawlenty has led a battle against high drug costs since he took office, breaking ground with a state-sponsored Internet site to allow Minnesotans to order lower-cost prescription drugs from specified Canadian pharmacies that have been inspected by Minnesota officials.

"We've tackled the problem by helping Minnesotans find safe and affordable medicines from Canada and by providing price comparisons and other information on But the billions of dollars drug companies spend pushing the 'purple pill' or promising you dreams of butterflies while you sleep at night continue to drive health care costs upward. We need to say 'time out' when it comes to drug ads and examine how much this is costing each and every one of us," says the Republican governor.

The United States is the only industrialized country that permits drug companies to advertise directly to consumers, which urge consumers to lobby their doctors for prescriptions. On the other side, the same drug companies spend even more money directly lobbying doctors to prescribe the same drugs and give away samples to help. Changes in federal drug advertising regulations have caused direct-to-consumer advertising to climb from $800 million in 1996 to $4.2 billion last year.

Pawlenty's proposal includes legislation to adopt federal standards as state law to allow Minnesota and other states to regulate prescription advertising and state legislation requiring drug companies to report their expenditures on advertising in the state.

On the latter, politics in an election year becomes evident as Attorney General Mike Hatch -- the DFL-endorsed candidate against Pawlenty -- properly notes that the governor didn't support a drug marketing disclosure bill that failed in the 2004 Legislature and which Hatch has called for.

Critics of the proposal are calling it "an empty gesture" since a Congress in drug companies' back pockets will never agree.

But it's still a good idea. While not sol-ving the problem of skyrocketing health care costs, it certainly would make a dent.