Are Drug Ads Harming Your Health?

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While watching the commercials during your favorite television show, do you feel tired? Confused? Ready to run to the drugstore?

Some Americans watch as many as 16 hours of television ads featuring medications every week. And these ads, showcasing active men and women living full lives thanks to a little pill, may be making a big impact in how healthy you feel.

"Prescription drug ads are the most targeted consumer product sold these days," said Dr. Dominick Frosch, from the University of California, Los Angeles. Frosch is the lead author of a study analyzing the content of drug ads and how they portray medical problems. .

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In the study, published in the Annals of Family Medicine, researchers analyzed the content of 38 different prescription drug ads for medications use to treat a variety of diseases, including insomnia, depression and heart disease.

The researchers found that only 25 percent of the ads described the symptoms, causes or even frequency of the illnesses the drugs were supposed to treat. Additionally, many of these ads tended to introduce the drug as a way of taking control of the disease. In fact, 58 percent featured "patients" describing how a particular disease left them feeling out of control, and 85 percent presented these patients regaining that control after using the medication.

In addition, 78 percent of these ads portrayed the drug as a way to gain popularity and 58 percent implied that the drug was a medical breakthrough.

"Ads send the message that you need drugs to manage [your medical] problems and that without medication your life will be less enjoyable, more painful and maybe even out of control," said Frosch.

Only 19 percent of the ads studied recommended that lifestyle changes may be helpful while taking the drug, none suggested that lifestyle changes were viable alternatives, and 18 percent even suggested that these solutions would not be enough to cope with a particular disease.

These statistics show that drug ads may play to a viewer's emotions, not the rational reasons why a person would choose to take a particular drug.

"[They] show people who have lost control over their social, emotional or physical lives without the medication," said the study authors. "The ads have limited educational value and may oversell the benefits of drugs in ways that might conflict with promoting population health."

The study authors view drug ads as an opportunity for medical education, not just a forum to sell a brand name. These ads should include risk factors, symptoms of the disease and alternatives to the drug being advertised, said Frosch.

To avoid being swayed by pharmaceutical ads, Frosch recommends that consumers be more skeptical about what's being advertised on television and take a proactive approach by learning more from other sources. "Keep in mind that buying a prescription drug is not like buying a bar of soap," he said. "If you use the wrong one, you can do serious harm."

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