Warning: Ads for drugs may be hazardous

Health: Advertising medical products requires a level of responsibility that advertisers do not always exercise.

September 26, 1999|By Kevin Lamb

ANYONE WHO watches enough television commercials knows there is no health decision so foolish, no disorder so debilitating, that it can't be overridden by a product at the drugstore.

Heartburn keeps you up at night, but you just can't stand the boredom of a sensible diet? Have we got a pill for you! We're not allowed to tell you to grind up an extra one and sprinkle it on top of your chili dog with onions, but we sure can give you the impression that there is nothing our magic pill won't let you eat.

Or do you sneeze just looking outside the window during allergy season? No problem. The right pill will have you frolicking in the meadow and rolling through the blossoms in no time.

Live a little. Stop and smell the ragweed.

Advertising in general is the art of coaxing us to spend money we don't have for products we don't need, because they can't really deliver on the promises the advertisements hint at.

But advertising medical products requires a level of responsibility that advertisers don't normally display. A person who chooses a box of corn flakes or a brand of jeans that isn't perfect probably won't die from it. Most European countries have banned direct-to-consumer drug ads to protect their citizens from being under-informed and over-medicated.

Until two years ago, nearly all prescription drug ads were directed at doctors. After all, they wrote the prescriptions.

But federal restrictions on those ads loosened in 1997, and drug companies spent $1.3 billion advertising to American consumers last year, more than the beer companies spent. The ads targeted not only people who wanted to lose weight or grow hair but also those who feared cancer.

The ad blitz worked. Reportedly, more than two-thirds of allergy sufferers say their primary source of treatment information is advertising. In a national survey this year, 53 percent of doctors said a patient had requested a prescription drug by name -- a situation that is said to have many doctors upset.

Drug companies contend they are providing a useful service in educating customers. That's true to a point. Drugs save money and lives when they're used correctly, and ads have prompted many people to take needed medications.

Some companies have supplemented ads with information on the Web and in mailings, to raise the level of knowledge about disorders. Some have helped erode the stigmas against mental illness and impotence. An allergy-drug maker will mail you a reminder just before allergy season begins, wherever you live.

But keep in mind it provides that service so you won't forget to buy its product.

Advertisements are a source of education in the same way the Cartoon Channel is a source of art. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has reprimanded nearly 20 manufacturers in two years, and Consumer Reports found half the drug ads it examined to be misleading.

TV commercials have to name a drug's biggest risks, and you can hear them if your VCR plays back in slow motion. The ads are less reliable about discussing precisely who should and should not use the drug.

Not everybody needs extra calcium, for example, or can tolerate it.

So, while it's fine for a patient to ask his or her doctor for a particular drug, it's essential to listen when the doctor explains why that's not a good idea.

All drugs have side effects, even over-the-counter medicines. If they're strong enough to help, they're strong enough to hurt.

And they're not magic. A person with high cholesterol won't get enough exercise wrestling with the child-proof cap on his medicine.

He shouldn't wash it down with a milkshake, either.

Kevin Lamb wrote this article for the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News. It was distributed by Cox News Service.

Pub Date: 09/26/99

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