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Drug Ads Often Misleading


A study shows that television commercials are rife with opinion and lifestyle associations but more often than not they also make misleading or false claims.

This article published with permission from The Burrill Report.

Defenders of consumer advertising on television for prescription and nonprescription drugs say it’s an important means of informing people about the availability of new drugs, but a new study finds these ads more often than not make misleading or even false claims.

The study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine from researchers at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy & Clinical Practice and The University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Pharmacy puts numbers to some of the issues in the debate over the value of these ads. At a time when patients are becoming health care consumers and taking a greater role in decision making on their medical matters, the researchers say access to high-quality information is more important. But the study suggests that is not what the industry delivers in its advertising.

That’s of no small consequence. Drugmakers spent $4.8 billion to advertise prescription drugs in 2009 and $3 billion for non-prescription products in 2009. The study’s authors say TV watchers may see up to 30 hours of drug advertising each year, a stark contrast to the 15 to 20 minutes they spend on average with a primary care physician during a visit.

Researchers drew from the Vanderbilt TV News Archive for the study, an archive of recordings of the nightly news broadcasts on ABC, CBS, and NBC since 1968 and on CNN since 1992. They viewed advertisements in the 6:30 p.m. EST period, a desirable time slot for drug advertisers because of the older audience that watches the nightly news.

The researchers reviewed 168 commercials for prescription and over-the-counter drugs that aired between 2008 and 2010, and identified statements that were strongly emphasized in the ads. A team of trained analysts then classified those claims as being truthful, potentially misleading or false based on such things as clinical trials results or information on company websites.

The researchers found that false or unsubstantiated claims were rare — one in 10 — but that six in 10 claims were potentially misleading. The commercials considered misleading left out important information, exaggerated information, provided opinions or made meaningless associations with lifestyles. The researchers found the problem was worse for over-the-counter drug ads than prescription ads.

Adrienne Faerber, a post-doctoral fellow with the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy & Clinical Practice and one of the authors of the study, said what’s troubling about many of the claims is that they were what she called “non-fact” claims in the form of opinion or made associations with lifestyle that were unrelated to the need for the drug being advertised.

“When it comes to drugs, all of these products have been tested in clinical trials,” she says. “Why isn’t the advertising using that clinical trials evidence to back up their claims? Why do they need to go to a famous spokesperson to say the drug works for them? We as consumers are left to infer that if the drug works for Sally Field, for example, or Brett Favre, then the drug should work for me? That’s flawed thinking. That’s not the way drugs work.”

Copyright 2012 Burrill & Company. For more life sciences news and information, visit

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