Could Drug Ads Be Bad for Your Health?

Do you experience confusion? Anxiety? Feelings that your life is out of your control?

Televised advertisements for prescription drugs may be partly to blame, new research suggests.

A study published in the current issue of the journal Annals of Family Medicine examined 38 different pharmaceutical advertisements that ran during peak television viewing times. Researchers found that while the overwhelming majority of the ads made arguments for the use of drugs, only about a quarter of them described the causes of the medical conditions the drugs are designed to treat.

The study also found that emotional appeals were common, and about 85 percent emphasized regaining control over some aspect of life.

"The ads do rely almost universally on the consumers' emotions," says Dominick Frosch, lead study author and assistant professor of general internal medicine at UCLA. "Medical decisions shouldn't be about emotions. They should be on carefully weighed benefits, risks and costs."

Frosch says presenting information about the drugs in this way could also lead patients to think that they need medicine even if they really don't. This could lead to changes in the way patients and doctors communicate.

"It's really intruding onto the doctor-patient relationship," says Dr. Kurt Stange, editor of Annals of Family Medicine and professor of family medicine at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "What the ads tend to do is take up time and energy during a visit that could otherwise be spent on things that are important to the patient."

And both Stange and Frosch say the drug ads may lead patients to demand the advertised medications from their doctors.

"Doctors in surveys have said that they have provided drugs even when the prescription wasn't appropriate," Frosch says. "If consumers were powerless in changing the views of the doctors, the pharmaceutical industry would not be spending money advertising to them. It works."

Can Advertisements Be Educational?

Before 1997, drug companies were faced with a conundrum when it came to advertising their products through television commercials.

They could choose to mention either the product's name or what condition it was supposed to treat, but they could not mention both.

The only alternative allowed by FDA guidelines at the time was to list every side effect and possible contraindication of the drug -- practically an impossible feat for a 30-second commercial.

Ten years later, television advertising of prescription drugs has become ubiquitous. Proponents argue that the ads serve a valuable health function by educating patients.

However, Frosch says most ads fail to live up to this standard.

"What our study finds is that the education that these ads provide is very minimal," he says.

Tighter Regulation May Be Needed

Despite his criticism of the current state of prescription drug advertising, Stange says the ads are "not inherently bad." If redesigned, Stange says, televised advertisements of prescription drugs have the potential to provide patients with important information. But he adds that in their current form, the ads are unbalanced.

Frosch agrees.

"I am not sure that we necessarily have to ban prescription drug ads, but it does need to be more regulated," he says. "The ads need to include more information, details such as lifestyle choices that may be better, or side effects or other contraindications. What we need to recognize is that buying prescription drugs is not like buying a bar of soap."

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