TV Drug Ad Claims Are Often Misleading, Study Finds

Those drug ads you see on primetime TV might not be giving you an accurate picture of the medications' benefits and downsides, according to a new study.

Researchers examined 168 TV commercials for pharmaceuticals that aired at 6:30 p.m. ET on ABC, CBS and NBC between 2008 and 2010, and found that about six out of 10 claims were in some way misleading by leaving out or exaggerating information, making opinions, or meaninglessly linking lifestyle choices with the drugs.

"Healthcare consumers need unrestricted access to high-quality information about health," study researcher Adrienne E. Faerber, of The Dartmouth Institute, said in a statement. "But these TV drug ads had misleading statements that omitted or exaggerated information. These results conflict with arguments that drug ads are helping inform consumers."

The findings, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, involved analysis of 84 prescription and 84 over-the-counter drug ads, which were for 34 prescription drug brands and 31 over-the-counter drug brands. The ads ranged in length from 30 to 120 seconds (for prescription drug ads), and 15 to 30 seconds for over-the-counter drugs. There were a total of 996 claims that researchers identified in all of the ads.

They separated all the claims into three general categories: objectively true, potentially misleading, or false. Researchers found that 33 percent of the claims were objectively true, 10 percent were just flat-out false, and 57 percent were potentially misleading by not sharing important information, exaggerating information, or sharing information not related to the drug. Over-the-counter drug claims were more likely to be misleading than prescription drug claims: eight out of 10, versus six out of 10.

For example, the researchers explained in the study that some products, like liquid capsules, may be advertised as working faster than previous formulations of the same product. But sometimes those advertisements could come off misleading:

In these cases, there was evidence that the product did dissolve faster, but the product did not relieve symptoms faster. For example, a crystal packet was promoted as "ready to work faster" than other formulations, and a liquid capsule was "allergy relief at liquid speed."

Researchers also shared an example in the study of a claim that was misleading because of non-drug-related information:

For example, a famous spokesperson for an osteoporosis drug told consumers, "I'm using DRUGNAME to build strong, healthy bones." This opinion provides no factual information about the effectiveness of the drug, but instead provides a subjective evaluation of the product quality or effectiveness. Consumers are left to make the inference that if the drug works for the famous spokesperson, then it will work for the consumer.

Currently, over-the-counter and prescription drug ads are monitored by two different agencies: the Food and Drug Administration oversees advertising for the latter, while the Federal Trade Commission oversees advertising for the former. One big difference between the two is that the FDA requires drug ads to name the potential harms of taking the drug, while that information isn't often stated in over-the-counter drug ads.

In 2008, University of Georgia researchers found that prescription drug ads aren't giving enough airtime to potential risks, with the average minute-long ad only having eight seconds worth of side effect disclaimers.

"These ads clearly don't devote enough time to information about risk," the researcher of that study, Wendy Macias, an associate professor at the university's journalism school, said in a statement. "Adding to the problem is that the information is often presented in a way that people aren't likely to comprehend or even pay attention to."

TV commercials aren't the only guilty parties -- a 2011 study in the journal PLoS ONE showed that only 18 percent of drug ads in biomedical journals were compliant with FDA guidelines.

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