Vast Majority of Drug Commercials Mislead, Study Shows

drug commercials

Though you probably expect a little exaggeration and “best-case-scenario”-ism when viewing advertisements for weight loss products, hair-thickening shampoos and age-reversing skin creams, you may assume that commercials for prescription and over-the-counter drugs contain the truth and nothing but the truth. After all, drug commercials and their content are monitored closely by the Food and Drug Administration, right?

Unfortunately, the reality is that most advertisements for both prescription and OTC medications contain at least some misleading information, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Dartmouth College. Advertisements were also found to simply leave out important information regarding the drugs. What’s more, the FDA could actually use your help in sniffing out these less-than-truthful ads.

Too Many Drug Commercials Lie or Omit Facts

A team of researchers led by Adrienne E. Faerber conducted the study, which looked at 84 over-the-counter drug commercials and 84 prescription drug commercials, all of which were selected at random. The commercials ran during evening news shows on NBC, CBS, ABC and CNN between the years of 2008 and 2010. Alarmingly, the researchers found that about 80% of OTC drug commercials and 60% of prescription drug commercials were either partially misleading or entirely false.

The researchers classified the authenticity of the major claim made in each ad one of three ways:

  • Objectively true, if the claim was supported by scientific evidence, with no exaggeration and no omission of crucial details.
  • Misleading, if the claim omitted important details or was exaggerated.
  • False, if the claim was not supported by scientific evidence.

According to Faerber, commercials for erectile dysfunction drugs are almost universally misleading regardless of specific branding because they all suggest that they’ll make you “ready for sexual activity when the time is right.” However, Faerber insists that sexual readiness is something that requires a certain emotional state as well as a physical one, and prescription erectile dysfunction drugs only address the physical aspect.

How the FDA Regulates Drug Commercials

As mentioned previously, the FDA is tasked with ensuring the authenticity of the claims made in prescription drug commercials. Andrea Fischer, a spokeswoman for the FDA, said that consumers should report commercials they believe to be unbalanced or misleading to the FDA for further review. However, while pharmaceutical companies are required to submit promotional materials and advertisements to the FDA, the FDA doesn’t actually review the advertisements until they air on live television. If the FDA finds the advertisement to be misleading, they’ll then contact the drug manufacturer.

A recent example of this occurred this past summer, when the FDA sent a letter to Merz Pharmaceuticals on July 31st, 2013 to request that they change their advertising to include warnings of potential local adverse reactions related to the company’s antifungal cream, Naftin. However, to date, Merz Pharmaceuticals hasn’t made any changes to their advertising or to their products, with no apparent repercussions.

At the same time, Faerber describes the FDA as being more proactive than the FTC (Federal Trade Commission), which regulates over-the-counter drug advertisements. Faerber says that the FTC is also more specialized than the FDA, even though the FTC apparently allows 80% of OTC drug commercials to include misleading information. According to Faerber, both organizations could more effectively regulate drug advertising if they collaborated more when new drugs came on the market.

The Bottom Line

A shocking percentage of prescription and over-the-counter drug advertisements are misleading or omit important facts, according to a recent study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

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