Junkfood Science: We're sold!

February 17, 2007

We're sold!

If its good health information we want, it turns out we’re better off not watching television.

We all know to be skeptical of commercials but most of us aren’t, especially when it comes to health and drug advertisements. They get us almost every time.

An editorial in the Oregon Register Guard, Pushing pills,” described why drug ads grab us so effectively:

Having trouble concentrating? Can't seem to finish reading even the most scintillating editorials? Here's what you need to do: Watch television.

In a single evening, you can see 15 or more advertisements for prescription drugs. Over the course of a year, you'll see about 16 hours of drug ads — far more time than you're likely to spend with your primary care doctor.

The ads will help you decide whether your difficulty concentrating arises from insomnia, depression, restless leg syndrome, allergies, erectile dysfunction, acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, high cholesterol, toenail fungus or social anxiety disorder. If you're like many people, you'll see something in one of those commercials that vaguely matches the way you sometimes feel.

More important, you'll want to get your hands on the pill that makes you look and feel like the people at the end of the commercial: happy, successful, lucky, well-rested and free of horrifying mustard-colored lice-like creatures tearing up the tender skin underneath your toenails. ...

Advertising directly to consumers (DTC) pays off for advertisers. And as the Register Guard reported, spending on DTC drug advertising has doubled just between 2001 and 2005, to $1.2 billion (with a “b”). What we aren’t told in these commercials, however, might surprise us.

A study just published in the January-February issue of the Annals of Family Medicine, led by Dominick L. Forsch, Ph.D., at the University of California, Los Angeles, demonstrated that we should be especially skeptical of advertisements concerning our health.

These researchers examined television prescription drug advertisements, especially commercials aired during the evening news and prime time hours. They analyzed their claims for factual accuracy and educational value and what they found was that DTC drug advertising oversell us on drugs. They found nearly all (95%) drug ads use emotional appeals, with most framing their sales pitches in terms of regaining control over some aspect of life and gaining social approval. These ads promote the fallacy that our health is easily under our control. Of course, it’s not just prescription drugs which use these same types of appeals, but also nonprescription dietary supplements and alternative remedies.

The pharmaceutical industry has justified DTC advertising with claims of their lifesaving educational value. Industry spokesman Paul Antony told a Senate hearing in 2005: “DTC advertising can be a powerful tool in educating millions of people and improving health.”

But these researchers found drug advertisement provides limited information about the causes of a disease or who may be at risk. Only about 25% of drug ads to consumers describe the causes, risk factors or actual prevalence of a condition.

“In general, the ads that consumers see do not contain the right balance of information to provide any meaningful health education,” said former FDA Commissioner David A. Kessler, M.D., in an accompanying editorial. They do not effectively or consistently convey necessary information about drug risks and benefits. As a result, nearly half of all physicians say that their patients come away with erroneous information about a drug because of the ads they’ve seen on TV.

Drug advertisements in this study showed themselves to be primarily efforts to create demands for the drugs. “Patients learn for the first time about conditions they never worried about before and ask physicians for new medicines by trade name because they saw it on television,” said the researchers.

If drug advertising actually led to millions more conditions being diagnosed and treated, then DTC might be supportable. But Dr. Kessler concluded that consumers who make health decisions based on what they learn from television commercials end up taking medications they don't need and spending money on brand name medications that may be no better than generics or no pills at all.

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