Doctors Criticize TV Prescription Drug Ads

A new study claims TV drug ads are education-lite, a claim challenged by the ad industry.

In the most recent issue of the Annals of Family Medicine, a study of direct-to-consumer advertising for prescription drugs concludes that the ads are not partiuclarly eduational and may not be good for public health, either.

"Despite claims that ads serve an educational purpose," say a quintet of doctors, "[direct-to-consumer TV prescription drug ads] provide limited information about the causes of a disease or who may be at risk; they show characters that have lost control over their social, emotional, or physical lives without the medication; and they minimize the value of health promotion through lifestyle changes.

"The ads have limited educational value," they conclude, "and may oversell the benefits of drugs in ways that might conflict with promoting population health."

In an editorial in the same publication, Dr. David Kessler, former commissioner of the  Food and Drug Administration from 1990 until 1997, seconded that conclusion, saying that "One fact is unquestionable: DTC ads do not effectively or consistently convey important information about product risks and benefits."

He also argued that recent pharmaceutical industry efforts to further self-regulate DTC advertising were not enough and policymakers needed to step in, saying selling prescription drugs is not the same as selling soap.

Dan Jaffe, executive VP of the Association of National Advertisers, says that everyone agrees that selling the two are different. "Drugs are not sold like soap," says Jaffe, pointing to "very tight" FDA restrictions on ads already and industry self-regulatory efforts.

Jaffe says DTC ads do provide important health information which could be lifesaving to the millions walking around with undiagnosed high blood pressure, for example, or diabetes.

"There is already momentum behind restricting prescription drug ads," he says, including banning them altogether. Jaffe says he hopes the study does not create any more momentum by misleading people about the efficacy of the ads or the restrictions that already exist.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.