In 1997, the Food & Drug Administration decided to loosen restrictions and allow pharmaceutical firms to market their products directly to the consumer (DTC). It remains a controversial decision, and the outcomes have benefited the companies rather than consumers.

When pharmaceutical companies market “directly to the consumer,” they're still trying to get the attention of the doctors … and drug companies know that doctors remain their key focus. Consider that those DTC ads bombarding us at primetime account for only about 15% of their marketing budgets, while free samples for doctors represent more than 50% of the budget! And the budgets are not small: pharmaceutical companies spend more than $ 20 billion each year on marketing.

So how does the DTC advertising trend benefit the drug companies?

Pharmaceutical companies market to doctors so they'll prescribe a name brand drug over a cheaper generic. Studies have shown that this is a highly effective way to increase their sales. Access to free samples does influence a doctor's prescription selections, since they are able to get a patient started on a needed medication right away versus waiting for the patient to visit a pharmacy. It also helps the brand name drug stay at the top of the doctor's mind. And the payoff is huge for the drug companies, since generics tend to be heavily discounted from the brand name drug's price.

How has DTC advertising affected consumers?

First the good news: consumers are becoming more educated. Being given facts about various diseases and conditions – whether it's arthritis pain, birth control, high cholesterol or ADHD – consumers naturally listen to the lists of symptoms & side effects and think about whether they've noticed anything new happening health-wise. Patients that are educated about or aware of a subject – even to a small degree – will be more likely to talk about it with their doctor. And while your doctor may brush off your question, the advertising does force us to explore potential health issues that would otherwise be ignored.

However, there's also some bad news. All of those ads are sending consumers into their doctor's office with a specific drug in mind, courtesy of their television sets or a magazine ad. And because doctors have already been conditioned by the drug companies to prescribe their name brands, patients can easily end up with drugs that may not need, or drugs that pose risks. Consumers should remember that there are plenty of examples of TV wonder drugs that have either been taken off the market entirely due to health risks (Merck's Vioxx) or have been forced to display caution statements and warning labels on the box.