Interpreting Prescription Drug Advertising
In direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising, pharmaceutical companies advertise their prescription drugs on TV, radio, Internet, and in magazines and newspapers. These ads are aimed directly at consumers. Researchers estimate that pharmaceutical companies in the US spend almost double on promotion than on research and development. The companies hope to increase sales through these ads by prompting patients to ask their doctors for the prescription medications.
The use of DTC advertising is controversial. There was a time when prescription drug advertising was discouraged, if not outright banned from the airwaves. And while that’s not true any more, critics argue that it encourages the overuse of prescription drugs and other costly treatments. Proponents say the information it provides empowers ordinary citizens to take charge of their own healthcare, which will inevitably lead to better health.
Regulating Prescription Drug Advertising
Unlike most other advertising, which is regulated by the Federal Trade Commission, advertising of prescription drugs has been regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) since 1962. The FDA established a set of detailed requirements for the content of prescription drug ads to help ensure that consumers are not misled or deceived by the ads. These requirements are intended to insure that pharmaceutical companies accurately communicate the benefits and risks of their advertised drugs.
Since information about medication risks can be confusing, pharmaceutical companies should be as informative and transparent as possible in their communications with the public. The FDA issued new draft guides in 2004 asking companies to use consumer-friendly language and to focus only on the most serious and common risks of a drug, instead of simply regurgitating information from the entire drug label.
DTC ads do not require FDA approval before being aired, but pharmaceutical companies are required to submit the ads to the FDA in advance. Companies may also request that the FDA review their proposed ads to see if they meet its requirements.
Learning About Types of DTC Ads
There are three types of prescription drug ads—product-claim ads, reminder ads, and help-seeking ads:
Product-claim ads are the most common. They mention a drug’s name and what it’s for. The FDA requires product-claims to have a “fair balance” of information about the drug’s risks and benefits, and disclose risks in a “brief summary” (for print ads) or give an overview of risks and information on where to find out more (for broadcast ads).
Reminder ads provide the name of the medication, but not what it is used for. They are not required to provide risk information.
Help-seeking ads educate consumers about a disease or condition and let people know that treatments exist, but do not name a specific drug. Health-seeking ads are not required to provide risk information.
Finding Out More About Drug Risks
With all the information that is required in DTC ads, consumers can be left feeling overwhelmed and confused. What information should you focus on when you see these ads? While the benefits of the drugs are often explicitly defined, the risks may not be as clear.
In print ads, you can read the “brief summary” that details the risks associated with the drug. But, in most cases, this summary is not brief at all and is filled with technical information that is hard to understand. And in broadcast ads, the overview of risks is often presented quickly at the end of the commercial, so you can easily miss important information.
Fortunately, most ads note that it is essential to talk with your doctor about the risks of any medication before you start taking it. This is the best advice of all. The doctor who will be prescribing the advertised medication is in the best position to determine whether or not its benefits outweigh its risks in your unique situation. Remember, the advertisement is geared to the general public, not you in particular.
Using Ad Information
In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found that when patients request prescription drugs from their doctor, doctors are more likely to prescribe them than when no request is made. This study underscored the fact that patients have the power to influence their own healthcare.
While DTC ads may be useful to some consumers, like any other advertisement it is important to place the information in its proper context. Even though the content of the ad is governed by FDA guidelines and may be reasonably accurate, it is not necessarily unbiased. The goal of DTC ads is to increase drug sales, and to do that, companies place their drugs in the most positive light possible.
If you see a drug in an ad that you think you might benefit from, or if you think you may you have the condition the drug is used to treat, look for other sources of reliable, unbiased information. Then, have a chat with your doctor, who is in the best position to apply this information to your particular medical circumstances.
Food and Drug Administration
National Institutes of Health
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Kravitz RL, Epstein RM, Feldman MD, et al. Influence of patients’ requests for direct-to-consumer advertised antidepressants: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA . 2005;293:1995-2002.
The impact of direct-to-consumer advertising. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Fdac/features/2003/203_dtc.html. Published February 2003. Accessed August 26, 2008.
Truth in advertising: Rx drug ads come of age. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/fdac/features/2004/404_ads.html . Published August 2004. Accessed August 26, 2008.
Last reviewed June 2008 by Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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