Warning: This Commercial May be Dangerous to Your Health

May 23, 2007

Judy Norsigian, executive director of Our Bodies Ourselves, wrote a stinging indictment of pharmaceutical advertising that was published yesterday at Women’s Media Center.

Norsigian argues that direct-to-consumer advertising, which the FDA approved in 1997, has dramatically changed the way people view health and medicine — as “drug companies move beyond promoting certain pills for treatment of diagnosed conditions to expanding their use in healthy people.”

While prevention is generally a good approach to health, the preventative medicine that drug companies are selling is frequently unnecessary and often not worth the associated risks:

The over-selling of postmenopausal hormones, supported by the depiction of natural menopause as a hormone deficiency disease, was the forerunner to this type of sales pitch, which now permeates the media. Aging, social anxiety disorder, heartburn, restless leg syndrome, and overactive bladder are all examples of symptoms or normal physiological events that are now presented to consumers as being in need of long-term drug treatment.

Norsigian also reveals some surprising loopholes in the regulation that governs these ads:

Most lay people — and even many physicians — are not aware that drug ads are not checked by the FDA for accuracy beforehand, and are pulled only after complaints are made and verified. This usually takes about six months, and the drug company is given a grace period of several additional months, by which time most ads would have been changed anyway. A company is rarely required to run a corrective ad, and there is no other penalty for misleading the public. Thus, while the FDA sends hundreds of letters each year requiring drug companies to retract their ads, most people don’t hear about them.

Norsigian also suggests that women should avoid the drugs that are most frequently advertised — or for which they have coupons — because those tend to be “most expensive drugs” and the ones “with the shortest track records of safety.”

Ultimately Norsigian calls on women to find independent sources of information about any treatment. (In terms of interpreting the messages of pharmaceutical companies, Healthy Skepticism, an international non-profit health organization, breaks down misleading advertising in its “AdWatch” section of its website. And Health News Review does a good job of analyzing media coverage of health-related issues and newly released medical studies.)

 

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