When a pharmacist cartel got the state to ban the advertisement of prescription drug prices in the interest of stopping price wars, Virginia Pharmacy Board v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council (1976) said that law was unconstitutional, because such a law was a violation of consumer’s First Amendment right of receiving information.
Here’s the simple facts of the case. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, Inc. is the appellee, which brought a lawsuit, against Virginia Pharmacy Board, arguing against the constitutionally of a statute banning pharmacists from advertising the prices of prescription drug prices. The Virginia Citizens argued this statute was in violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution.
The Supreme Court ruled this way. States cannot limit consumer access to information about prescription drug prices.
In this case, a majority of Supreme Court justices shot down protectionism in this case. In the past, the Virginia Pharmacy board lobbied the state and succeeded in getting a protectionist law passed. However, the Supreme Court didn’t want to give the pharmacists that kind of protection, so they overruled the state protectionist law.
Nevertheless, Virginia Pharmacy Board argued the law was necessary. They said it would maintain quality of pharmaceutical drugs sold. Also, they said quality of drugs would suffer in the event of price wars. The Supreme Court didn’t buy Virginia Pharmacy Board’s arguments.
In giving a rationale to overrule the Virginia law, the Supreme Court said consumers/citizens need to know drug prices. Citizens need to compare prices for the lowest deal. Essentially, the Supreme Court said the Virginia Pharmacy Board can’t hide drug prices from citizens.
In his majority opinion, Justice Blackmun’s majority said everyone has the right to freedom of information, according to the First Amendment.
“Any First Amendment protection enjoyed by advertisers seeking to disseminate prescription drug price information is also enjoyed, and thus may be asserted, by appellees as recipients of such information… ‘Commercial speech’ is not wholly outside the protection of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and the Virginia statute is therefore invalid.”
As well, Justice Blackmun’s majority didn’t agree with the state when it tried to keep price information from citizens.
“The ban on advertising prescription drug prices cannot be justified on the basis of the State’s interest in maintaining the professionalism of its licensed pharmacists; the State is free to require whatever professional standards it wishes of its pharmacists, and may subsidize them or protect them from competition in other ways, but it may not do so by keeping the public in ignorance of the lawful terms that competing pharmacists are offering.”
In dissent, Chief Justice Rehnquist viewed this case as returning to the Lochner era, which saw Supreme Court Justices overrule majority passed state legislation.
“Under the Court’s opinion, the way will be open not only for dissemination of price information, but for active promotion of prescription drugs, liquor, cigarettes, and other products the use of which it has previously been thought desirable to discourage.”
In conclusion, I liked Virginia Pharmacy Board v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council. This is a funny case because it’s about a bunch of pharmacists, basically a cartel, who got a state law passed to protect their interests. However, the Supreme Court shot down that law because it kept cheap drug prices from the elderly and poor who couldn’t afford expensive drug prices. I enjoyed reading this case.