The US spends more on pharmaceuticals than any other country … by a very wide margin, but ….

it’s not because of what you may think. In the United States spending on prescription drugs is about 10.3% of total health care spending. Lower than the OECD country average and lower than Japan, Canada, Germany and Belgium.

The per capita out of pocket spending on prescription drugs in the US is only $21 higher than the OECD average and lower than Switzerland and Canada. (all data from Health System Tracker)

Yes, prescription drugs are expensive (some of them). Yes, the US pays more for many drugs than other countries, but that does not explain the chart below.

What does, however, is the fact Americans take a lot of drugs compared with people in other countries. And, the use of drugs has been growing over the years. For a variety of reasons both good and bad nearly 60% of Americans take at least one prescription drug, many take several.

So, are we abusing drugs, are we victims of advertising or of our own lifestyles? Are we trapped by an uncoordinated, inefficient system where multiple physicians provide multiple prescriptions to a patient who does not communicate effectively?

It’s easy to find a scapegoat in the sky high price of many drugs and the organizations that set them, but cutting those prices may not address our real problem and imagine if lower prices actually encourages greater use.


  1. It would be interesting to see the trend lines of spending on pharmaceuticals (both prescription and OTC) along with a trend line on the spending on advertising by the same industry for the past 60 years.

    The percent of TV advertising on pharmaceuticals compared to all tv ads seems to have increased greatly since 2000. One medication I take is relatively new and not yet available as a generic. I see it advertised on tv often. Very often.


  2. I hate charts like this. Yes, United States spends more money on drugs but the chart needs to be shown as per capita. You cannot compare the US to Austria’s spending since the population 323 million to 8.7 million people (thats 37:1). That is like comparing the whole US population spending to the population of New Jersey’s 8.9 million people spending.

    I am curious to know how much of that money is spent on OTC drugs without a prescription? With the US lack of sick time, do people try to self medicate because it is easier to go to a mega drug store on the corner? TV commercials have a pill for every symptom and in time it becomes a form of OTC.


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