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What you should know about prescription medication ads

If you watch TV, listen to the radio, or read magazines, you’ve probably seen or heard advertisements for prescription medications. And when the advertised drug is for a health condition that you have, you may wonder why your doctor has never suggested it.

Since pharmaceutical companies began direct-to-consumer advertising in the early 1990s, they’ve shifted a conversation that used to be between doctors, pharmacists, and salespeople, to one that includes patients. While some argue that the ads provide benefits to consumers, there’s plenty of reason to be wary of this advertising, says Vivien Chan, PharmD, manager of pharmacy clinical operations at Kaiser Permanente.

Chan suggests that consumers keep these things in mind when viewing advertisements for drugs:

Drug companies spend big bucks advertising to consumers. Between 1997 and 2005, spending on prescription drug ads for consumers increased 20 percent each year to more than $4.2 billion. While some argue that the ads have educational value, the main purpose is to sell drugs. There’s not much evidence that the ads are effective in educating patients, says Chan, and the information presented can be misleading.

A new drug isn’t necessarily a better drug. A new drug may have more unpleasant side effects than an older drug, may not be as effective, and is probably more expensive. It might even be harmful, as in the well-known case of Vioxx—a prescription painkiller. After being prescribed to millions of patients, Vioxx was found to significantly increase the risk of heart attacks and death and was pulled off the market.

Many advertised drugs treat lifestyle conditions, not diseases. These conditions can include hair loss, impotence, and the effects of aging. The ads may overstate the benefits of these drugs, and understate the risks.

Brand-name drugs aren’t better than generic drugs. Brand-name and generic drugs have the same active ingredients, Chan explains, so the therapeutic effect is the same. Rarely, a patient may do better taking one rather than the other because of how they respond to the inactive ingredients in the drug—which can be different, Chan says.

Drug advertising can inspire a conversation. If there’s a benefit to drug advertising, this is where you’ll find it.  Most drug ads end with a suggestion that you “Talk with your doctor to see if this drug is right for you.” Having that conversation with your doctor can be a terrific opportunity to deepen your understanding about a medical condition and the drugs used to treat it.

Drug advertising can increase awareness of some conditions. A good example is the advertising for the vaccine against the HPV virus, which can cause cervical cancer. The downside, though, is that the ads usually don’t offer a complete and unbiased picture of the condition. For example, they don’t address prevention measures that don’t include a drug.  Or that some HPV infections may be self-limiting or take a long time to develop.

What’s the bottom line? A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey on the topic of advertising found that some physicians felt pressure from consumers to prescribe a specific drug. If you’re ever tempted to ask your physician for an advertised drug, a better approach would be to ask questions. “Have a conversation with your doctor if you think a different drug would be better for you,” Chan recommends. “But keep an open mind. The drug being advertised may not be the best one for you.”

Virginia Smyth