ADHD Ads Target Back-to-School Crowd

Parents shopping for pencils, book bags and new clothes for their kids may be tempted by recent advertisements to add yet another item to their back-to-school cart -- a prescription for an ADHD drug.

So say critics of back-to-school themed ads for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) drugs sponsored by companies that market the medications.

"Given that parents obviously are anxious about their kids' school performance, these ads really exploit these parents' concerns," said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen's Health Research Group.

"This kind of ad is obviously not pushing for better teaching, better schools or more counseling, but it is pushing for the easy fix, the drug solution."

But a number of child and adolescent psychiatrists counter that the ads may not be all bad -- and may even give children access to beneficial treatment options of which their parents would not otherwise be aware.

Children with ADHD often have trouble sitting still and paying attention. They may also act out at home and, more problematically, in the classroom.

On Monday, an editorial in the Los Angeles Times took drug makers to task for advertisements featuring drugs used to treat the condition, which routinely feature the medicines' branding splashed amid a background of back-to-school imagery.

"Powerful psychotropic medications should be an option of last resort and uninfluenced deliberation, not another brand-name product to add to the back-to-school shopping list," the editorial reads.

The article points a finger at U.S. regulatory agencies for lax oversight of such ads, some of which market candy-flavored versions of the powerful drugs.

Industry representatives have already come out in defense of the advertisements, which they say educate the public about a commonly undertreated condition among children.

"[W]hat the author failed to mention is that while more Americans are seeking treatment for mental illnesses, most of them fail to get adequate care," said Ken Johnson, senior vice president of the industry group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) in a statement issued Wednesday.

"DTC advertising can help bridge this information gap by empowering patients, improving patient understanding of disease and available treatments, and fostering strong relationships between patients and their health care providers," the statement continues.

And some psychiatrists say that while ethical considerations do exist with regard to the ads, they could be more beneficial than the public realizes.

"While the drug companies may be advertising their products, there is a piece of this that could be educational," said Dr. John Walkup, associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore, Md.

"It's an advertisement. No question, they're trying to sell their product," he said. "On the other hand, this is the time of year when kids start to benefit from these products."

"It's a double-edged sword," said Dr. Sharon Hirsch, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Chicago Comer Children's Hospital.

"Certainly they're out there to promote their medicines. But I think the positive side of advertisements, especially for psychological medications, is that you decrease some of the stigma of some of these conditions."

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