Politicians: No More Erectile Dysfuntion Ads!

In the midst of an all-consuming debate over health care reform, some lawmakers are using the opportunity to fight TV ads for prescription drugs. You know the type: The Lunesta butterfly fanning an sleepless face; the FloMax man chuckling while male golfers scamper to porta-potties; the Viva Viagra singers pausing to warn about certain four-hour abnormalities.

But now a group of congressmen are pushing bills to ban or tax prescription drug ads. Do they have a shot?

Probably not, reports the New York Times. But first, let's review the three ideas floating around Congress.

1) No More Erectile Dysfunction Commercials
Proposed by Rep. James Moran, a Virginia Democrat, this bill would ban erectile dysfunction ads from prime-time television on decency grounds. This could be tricky. On the one hand, the ads can't get around that chilling term "four hour erection" for legal purposes, and as Jeffrey Goldberg wrote, that can be really frustrating for a parent of young kids.

On the other hand, the ads are usually pretty implicit, what with footballs flying through tire swings and bathtubs on the beach (what is the deal with those, anyway? What a pointless, unromantic schlep that would be). And that suggestiveness could make it difficult to mount an indecency case on First Amendment grounds.

2) More Studies Before We See the Ads
Rep. Henry Waxman would like to delay advertising for prescription drugs until the makers handle initial issues from the first wave of real-world prescriptions. It's not even a bill at this point, just an idea he floated in a opening address as the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. And I imagine that between cap-and-trade and health care, this measure doesn't have his full attention.

3) End the Tax Deducation
Another bill would do something a little more subtle. Rather than seek to ban the ads outright, Rep. Jerrold Nadler would amend the tax code so that drug companies could no longer deduct the cost of direct-to-consumer drug ads as a business expense. It's true that America is remarkable in allowing companies to advertise prescription drugs directly to consumers on television. New Zealand is the only other country in the world that allows it.

But these bills would be going up against the drug industries' strong interest in direct-to-consumer marketing, which netted an estimated $8 billion in revenue last year from $4.8 billion in direct-to-consumer ads. It's no wonder then that Rep. Charlie Rangel says measures to ban drug advertisements have largely failed in the past, and that ending the tax deduction would be a drop in the bucket when it comes to paying for health reform. In the meantime it's likely that the prescription drug ad business will, pace FloMax, continue to be a "growing problem" for the rest of us.