Drugs Advertised on TV Often Have Low Therapeutic Value, Study Finds

Drug companies spend billions of dollars on television commercials for drugs that are more expensive and less effective than other treatments, according to the findings

Some of the drugs most widely advertised on television actually have very little therapeutic value, including Chantix, Xeljanz and others, which often results in doctors prescribing drugs that cost more and may not provide benefits for the user, according to the findings of a new study.

Direct-to-consumer advertising for drugs has quintupled since the late 1990s’, according to research published this month in the medical journal JAMA Network Open, which indicates that seven out of ten drugs marketed through television ads actually promote medications that are less effective and more expensive than other available treatment options.

Researchers from Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital report that television commercials account for about two-thirds of all direct-to-consumer drug advertising, and the study sought to quantify the therapeutic value of those drugs, by looking at whether they actually represent medical advances or have advantages over other existing treatments.

To conduct the study, researchers looked at data on drug television ads from 2015 to 2021. They then looked at therapeutic value ratings for those drugs from independent health assessment agencies in Canada, France and Germany, to give each treatment a therapeutic value.

Of the 81 top-advertised drugs, the researchers were able to generate therapeutic values for 73 of them, which represented $22.3 billion in advertising spending between 2015 and 2021. However, only 20 of those drugs, or 27.4%, were defined as having high therapeutic value.

The findings indicate $15.9 billion was spent on 53 drugs with low therapeutic value between 2015 and 2021. While the researchers did not identify which drugs were of high or low therapeutic value in the study, the drugs with the most dollars spent on advertising during that time period were Trulicity, Chantix and Xeljanz.

Xeljanz Lawsuits Claim Misleading Marketing

After Xeljanz was introduced, Pfizer marketed the drug and pushed build market share among number of blockbuster rheumatoid arthritis treatments that were already on the market, which included Humira, Enbrel and other TNF inhibitors.

Xeljanz was advertised as a safer and more convenient treatment option, and quickly grew to become a top selling drug, with annual sales of more than $2 billion worldwide. However, concerns about serious Xeljanz side effects first emerged after preliminary data was released from a post-marketing study conducted by the drug maker.

According to allegations raised in a number of Xeljanz blood clot lawsuits, the drug maker ignored serious risk signals associated with their new treatment and put their desire for profits before consumer safety by failing to adequately research the new medication or warn about the side effects. Plaintiffs say cancer, heart attacks, strokes, pulmonary embolism, deep vein thrombosis or other injuries may have been avoided if earlier warnings had been provided about the potential side effects.

In 2021, the FDA announced new label warnings about the Xeljanz heart and cancer risks, after evaluating data from a large randomized clinical trial funded by the drug maker, which found users of the drug experienced more blood clot-related injuries, cardiovascular events, as well as cancers and death. As a result of the findings, the agency required a label update for Xeljanz, as well as all other drugs in the same new class of medications.

Learn More About

Xeljanz Lawsuits

Side effects of Xeljanz linked to risk of cancer, heart attacks, pulmonary embolism, deep vein thrombosis, blood clots and death.


This latest study raises concerns that doctors and patients are often swayed by the ubiquitous advertising for certain drugs, causing less expensive and more effective treatments to be overlooked or bypassed entirely.

The most effective drugs for a certain condition are often so well known and accepted that they do not need advertising. However, prescribers could be convinced that less effective drugs are the best option through glitzy, and sometimes deceptive, drug advertisements that bombard them day after day.

The researchers noted that, between 1997 and 2016, direct-to-consumer drug advertising increased five-fold, with 663,000 drug television commercials reported in 2017. It has only increased since then, researchers found.

“Fewer than one-third of the most common drugs featured in direct-to-consumer television advertising were rated as having high therapeutic value, defined as providing at least moderate improvement in clinical outcomes compared with existing therapies,” researchers determined. “Manufacturers’ television advertising spending on included products rated as low therapeutic value was $15.9 billion from 2015 to 2021.”


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