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February 2002
Vol. 5, No. 2, p 16.
news in brief

Pharma ads

opening artDirect-to-consumer drug advertising in magazines targets its audience by emotional appeal and vague descriptions of a medication’s benefits, according to a recent study conducted by the Center for the Evaluative Clinical Sciences at Dartmouth Medical School (Hanover, NH).

“More complete information about benefits,” says Lisa Schwartz, one of the study’s authors, “would serve the interests of both physicians and the public.”

In this study (Lancet 2001, 358, 1141–1146), researchers analyzed 67 ads that appeared a total of 211 times in 10 widely read American magazines—including Time, Family Circle, and Sports Illustrated—published between July 1998 and July 1999. Of the 211 ad appearances, 133 were for drugs to alleviate symptoms, 54 for drugs to treat diseases, and 23 for drugs to prevent illnesses. In the 67 unique ads, emotional appeals were used to encourage consumers to identify medical causes for their experiences. In addition, 87% of the ads described the medication’s benefit in vague, qualitative terms rather than with quantitative data.

These drug ads need to address three basic areas, according to Schwartz and Steven Woloshin, a co-author of the study. The first area is the setting in which the drug is taken: Ads should address the condition that the drug is intended to treat and who should consider taking the medication. Second, advertisements should explain the medication’s potential benefits, giving data on both treatment and control groups. Finally, the potential harmful effects of the drug need to be outlined and prioritized. For example, says Schwartz, the most frequent or bothersome side effects might be listed and separated into life-threatening and less serious categories.

Schwartz and Woloshin also recommend that a special warning accompany new drugs to alert consumers that FDA approval is based on limited data and that the compelling evidence of a drug’s safety is its track record over time. They point out that the public’s enthusiasm for recently approved medications should be tempered by the recent recalls of Propulsid and Rezulin, two heavily advertised drugs. Propulsid, a heartburn drug, was withdrawn from the market in March 2000 because of links to heart rhythm problems in 341 users, including 80 deaths. The next month, the diabetes medication Rezulin was removed from the market after reports of possible harmful side effects such as liver toxicity.

Consumers should approach prescription ads with “healthy skepticism”, according to Schwartz. “Try to focus on the facts rather than the pictures or anecdotes.”

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