Drug Ads Misleading, Study Finds

Most television prescription drug ads minimize <"http://www.yourlawyer.com/practice_areas/defective_drugs">side effect and risk information.  Prescription drug ads began being run on the air just over a decade ago, but a new University of Georgia study finds most do not present a fair balance of information, especially when it comes to side effects.  A team led by Wendy Macias, associate professor in the UGA Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, analyzed a week’s worth of direct-to-consumer ads on broadcast and cable television and found the average 60-second ad contained less than 8 seconds of side effect disclaimers, while the average 30-second ad has less than 4.4 seconds: most15-second ads studied devoted no time at all.  “These ads clearly don’t devote enough time to information about risk,” said Macias, whose results appear in the November/December issue of the Journal of Health Communication. “Adding to the problem is that the information is often presented in a way that people aren’t likely to comprehend or even pay attention to.”   Macias and her team, found almost all of the ads disclosed side effects solely in a voice-over portion of the ad.  Only 2.2 percent of ads had the disclosure in voice-over as well as in text form.

The 1997  Food & Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines that allowed drug companies to greatly expand the scope of their direct-to-consumer advertising required the companies to present a fair balance between information about effectiveness and information about risk; however, fair balance is not defined by the FDA, so Macias created the following four-tiered classification:

1.    Lawbreakers:  Ads that don’t mention side effects.

2.    Bare minimums:  Ads that list side effects but spend less than 10 percent of time on risk information.

3.    Main pack:  Ads that spend more than 10 percent on risk information.

4.    Proactive, safety-oriented approach:  Gives equal treatment to both the risks and the benefits of the drug.

Researchers found two percent of the ads studied were clear lawbreakers, 10 percent met bare minimum requirements, and 88 percent were in the main pack.  Researchers analyzed commercials airin in 2003, but Macias said current ads are similar in content and leave much to be desired.  “Very few advertisers are really doing well enough when it comes to actually trying to educate the consumer,” she said. “The ads are presented in such a way that the consumer would have to be paying very close attention and be adept at processing the information to really understand the risks as well as the benefits.”

Proponents of direct-to-consumer ads argue they help raise awareness of various medical conditions and treatments while critics argue the ads drive up health care costs by steering consumers to costly drugs they might not need.  Nielsen Media Research estimates pharmaceutical companies spent over $1.5 billion on direct-to-consumer television ads during the first half of 2007.  Macias said most ads could clearly do more to educate consumers.  “A prescription drug is something that consumers should be making a rational decision about,” Macias said. “And the more information consumers have, the better decisions they can make.”

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