The soon-to-be head of the National Association of Attorneys General had some warnings for the advertising community in Washington, D.C., Wednesday.
Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell, who was a participant in the suit against tobacco companies that that resulted in a multibillion dollar settlement, has pharmaceutical and food ads in his sights.
Sorrell did draw a distinction between tobacco companies, whose product is addictive and when used as directed can kill you, and other industries under the gun from some groups, including alcohol, dairy products, and beef. He also pointed out that after the tobacco settlement there had been dire predictions that those industries would be the next to be hit with big lawsuits. "That didn't happen," he said.
But he also said that while it may not come down to lawsuits, he still had a responsibility to use his power to advocate for consumers.
He said direct to consumer drug advertising is on attorneys general's radar screens to the extent that it drives up the price to consumers or encourages them to buy drugs they would not otherwise buy and might not need. In response to a question from a concerned drug company advertiser, he said that DTC ads weren't bad per se, but that the relationship between drug ad costs and drug prices needed to be explored as a general consumer protection issue. He also conceded that DTC ads were only a relatively small percentage of the marketing budget compared to drug company rep visits, samples and other freebies.
Sorrell also said his group would be looking out for ads plugging discount drug cards and, further down the road, alternative health plans (both part of the Bush administration Medicare reform) to see what effect their cost might have on drug prices.
Sorrell said that the issue of food ads and obesity is not on the front burner, but could move there if and when deaths from obesity outstrip those from tobacco, as they are expected to do within two or three years. His concern, he said, is that consumers are not being mislead or, alternatively, are getting enough information.
It is not as big an issue as drug or cigarette advertising, he said, "In some sense it is just "putting down the remote and getting off the couch."