Misleading Drug Commercials

hberends (sxc.hu)

hberends (sxc.hu)

Don’t Be Fooled

The other night, as I watched an hour of TV news, so many drug commercials aired that I lost count. Touting products that promised to fix everything from allergies to insomnia to osteoporosis, the commercials took a “we’re here to help” tone, as if educating the public and relieving suffering were their sole aims.

Was I tempted to ask my doctor about the drugs being peddled, as the sincere-sounding voice-overs urged? No way! In fact, after attending the recent PharmedOut medical conference at my alma mater, Georgetown University in Washington, DC, I’m more attuned than ever to the sneaky ways in which many pharmaceutical marketers try to convince consumers that they need certain drugs—whether or not those products are likely to do them any good.

To discuss this concern, I called John Abramson, MD, a lecturer in health-care policy at Harvard Medical School and author of Overdosed America: The Broken Promise of American Medicine. What we all need to keep in mind, he told me, is that “the fundamental purpose of drug advertising is to get people to buy newer and more expensive drugs, not to provide public health education.” Of course you should ask your doctor about any symptoms you have or any medication you’re considering, but realize that doctors can be swayed by slick marketing, too. In fact, your physician’s role as your primary health-care partner can be compromised by pharma-sponsored trips, perks, free samples and other incentives designed to convince doctors to prescribe the same drugs that their patients see advertised on TV or in print.

It’s also worth noting that the FDA does not approve drug ads before they are published or aired. Instead, it only warns companies afterward—sometimes months later—if violations are spotted. And there is virtually no regulation of drug companies’ increasing social media presence, such as on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. So basically we have to educate ourselves so we don’t fall for pharma’s marketing BS. Be on the lookout for

  • Misleading language. At the PharmedOut conference, participants discussed several common tricks of semantics. For instance, one doctor mentioned that the ad phrase “unsurpassed efficacy” sure makes a drug sound great—but it really means that the product works no better than another treatment option. Consumers also should listen closely for the word “may” (as in, “This fabulous drug may relieve all your symptoms”) because it also means “may not.” And remember, “new” does not necessarily mean “improved.” In fact, in clinical trials, the term “non-inferior” can actually mean that a new drug is no more than about 20% less effective than an existing drug! And though it’s common for ads to present a drug as a “breakthrough,” the fact is that new drugs usually are far more expensive than older ones—and their long-term dangers are unknown.
  • Glossed-over side effects. That lightening-quick listing of warnings and side effects is skillfully crafted with pleasing visuals, distracting background music, celebrity endorsements and/or too-tiny typography. All help create the impression that the drug is more helpful and less risky than it actually may be.
  • Medicalization of normal conditions. Many drug ads portray normal life experiences as medical problems that need treatment, a sneaky strategy that Dr. Abramson callsmedicalization. For instance, ads may urge patients to seek help, in the form of a drug, for “social phobia”—otherwise known as shyness. A similar marketing strategy is to imply that even very mild symptoms of a real disorder require medication—for instance, by suggesting that someone who’s feeling a bit down needs antidepressants, despite not having been diagnosed with depression. Remember: There’s no need to think that you’re sicker than you are just because some commercial suggests that you could be.
  • Skewed clinical study data. A study from York University in Toronto concluded that, when medication research is funded by the pharmaceutical industry, the findings are four times more likely to be positive than when the research is funded by a nonindustry sponsor. That’s because the primary purpose of industry-funded studies is to produce and promote outcomes that support product sales, rather than to educate the public, explained Dr. Abramson. Often, positive data points included in ads are cherry-picked to enhance a drug’s appeal, while unfavorable results go unmentioned. “The bad news is that even the most careful reading of the study by you or your doctor cannot reveal data that the drug company sponsor has chosen to hide or misrepresent,” Dr. Abramson cautioned.
  • Patient programs designed to get you hooked. Drug companies provide free samples for doctors to pass along to patients…and advertise financial help so patients can afford prescriptions. In both cases, the real goal is to create a loyal customer who gets used to the product and won’t want to switch even if a more effective or less expensive alternative is available.

Helpful drug watchdog Web sites: For more information on how not to fall prey to slick marketing tricks, visit www.PharmedOut.org from Georgetown University Medical Center…www.WorstPills.org from Public Citizen’s Health Research Group…and www.overdosedamerica.com from Dr. Abramson.

Source: John Abramson, MD, is a lecturer in health-care policy at Harvard Medical School in Boston and author of Overdosed America: The Broken Promise of American Medicine (Harper Perennial).

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