TV Drug Ads Are Misleading. Anyone Surprised?

Unless you’re the sort of person who would buy ice in a blizzard, you probably don’t need to be warned about the out-sized claims of TV ads for drugs. But if you’re the kind of person who likes proof of what you know is right, a new study confirms that pharmaceutical companies make promises about their products that are misleading at best, and dangerous at worst. recommends that “Consumers should be wary when watching those advertisements for pharmaceuticals on the nightly TV news,…” According to a report published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, in some cases, 8 out of 10 claims in those messages might be misleading.

The wayward ads concern both prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs marketed directly to consumers on TV.

The wisdom of directly advertising drugs to people who might not need them has been the subject of debate for some time. The ability of manufacturers to inform as well as they promote also has been called into question. It’s one thing for them to promote a car you don’t need, and quite another to promote a drug that could lead to illness rather than cure it.

“Health-care consumers need unrestricted access to high-quality information about health,” wrote one of the study’s authors “but these TV drug ads had misleading statements that omitted or exaggerated information. These results conflict with arguments that drug ads are helping inform consumers.”

In 2009 drug companies spent nearly $5 billion advertising their prescription wares; they spent $3 billion promoting OTC meds that year.

The researchers derived their data from an indexed archive of nightly prime time news broadcasts on ABC, CBS and NBC since 1968, and on CNN since 1992. That’s popular TV territory for drug promotions because the audience for nightly news tends to be older.

Nearly 170 TV advertisements for prescription and OTC drugs aired between 2008 and 2010. Researchers analyzed and classified the claims they made as truthful, potentially misleading or false.

They found that false claims-that is, factually false or unsubstantiated-were rare; only 1 in 10 was deemed “false.” But false advertising is serious; it’s illegal, and can lead to criminal and civil penalties.

Most of the claims were deemed “potentially misleading”; 6 in 10 omitted important information, exaggerated information, provided opinions or drew meaningless associations with lifestyles. Although 6 in 10 claims in prescription drug ads were misleading or false, 8 in10 claims in OTC drug ads fell into that category.

The FDA has authority over prescription drug advertising, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) oversees advertising for nonprescription drugs. But those agencies have different standards.

Prescription drug advertising must include information about the harms of the drug, but that information isn’t part of most OTC drug ads.

The researchers analyzed only what they determined to be the most-emphasized claim in each advertisement, and interpreting the meaning of claims was somewhat subjective. Still, does anyone really doubt that if Big Pharma can get away with painting a rosier picture of a drug than it deserves that it will happen?

Because, as the researchers note, consumers might see as many as 30 hours of TV drug ads every year, and because the average visit with a primary care physician is 15 to 20 minutes, patients must assume the responsibility of knowing the risks, as well as the benefits, of any medicine they take.

As always, ask these questions any time a doctor advises, or you’re considering, taking a drug:

What is this medication for?

What will happen if I don’t take this medication?

When can I expect this medication to work for me?

What do I do if I have a problem with this medication?

Can I take this medication with all my other medications?

To learn more about drugs, consult the National Institutes of Health drug and supplement database, Medline Plus.

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