Britons are horrified at all the drug ads aired during Oprah’s Harry and Meghan interview

Side effects may vary.
Side effects may vary.
Image: Harpo Productions / Reuters
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For Meghan Markle’s heartache and despair, no drug could be prescribed. But, as British viewers found to their mystification, American TV eagerly advertises pharmaceutical remedies for practically every other imaginable human condition.

Markle and her husband Prince Harry spoke to Oprah Winfrey in a CBS interview that aired on Sunday night in the US. The interview was scheduled to be broadcast the following evening in the UK, but many Britons couldn’t wait; VPN downloads soared in the country as people caught the CBS broadcast online. Which means they caught the ads as well.

And there were many, many of them; through the two-hour interview, it seemed to viewers as if Winfrey was either cutting to a break or just returning from one. CBS, having paid $7-9 million for the program, charged $325,000 for 30 seconds of advertising air time—twice its usual rate for the slot.

Harry and Meghan, brought to you by Big Pharma

But if Britons were not used to the deluge of commercials, they were particularly baffled by how many of them were for prescription medication. Advertising prescription drugs directly to consumers is illegal in the UK and in every other country except New Zealand—as it was in the US until 1985, when the Reagan administration liberalized it.

American medical companies spent nearly $27 billion on marketing prescription drugs in 2016, up from $17.1 billion in 1997. The commercials run the gamut, as they did on Sunday: drugs for cancer, diabetes, plaque psoriasis. Each spot intoned the inevitable laundry-list of side effects:

The British-American divide over healthcare

The ads felt like part of a systemic disconnect over healthcare between the two countries. They showed prescription medication to be a product like any other in the US, subject to the whims of consumer taste and priced into the bloated, inefficient, astoundingly expensive American healthcare system. To users of the UK’s socialized National Health Service (NHS), the idea of medication being subject to consumer choice was unimaginable.

It wasn’t just that these drugs were being advertised. It was that these advertisements were sunlit, over-bright reminders that companies in US healthcare are allowed to do nearly anything to turn a profit—that “American healthcare truly is a business,” as one observer said on Twitter. And they came after a pandemic year, when Britons are feeling grateful for public health. In a recent poll, 80% of respondents expressed happiness with the NHS’ vaccination drive, but only 29% felt the same about the test-and-trace systems implemented by private companies. The interview aired, in fact, on the very day Britons discovered that the world’s most expensive drug, costing nearly $2 million a dose to treat spinal muscular atrophy with gene therapy, would be heavily subsidized by the NHS

On Monday, though, Americans will have a chance to feel similarly baffled. If they have VPNs and can log in to ITV’s broadcast of the interview, they will perhaps catch a spate of betting and lottery ads and wonder if Britons just gamble away all the money they save on healthcare.