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Outrage of the Month: False and Misleading TV Drug Ads

Health Letter, December 2013

By Michael Carome, M.D.


If you’re not outraged,
you’re not paying attention!

Read what Public Citizen has to say about the biggest blunders and outrageous offenses in the world of public health, published monthly in Health Letter.

Anyone who watches television, particularly nightly news broadcasts or major sporting events, has witnessed the endless onslaught of advertisements for prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Of note, the U.S. is one of only two countries (the other being New Zealand) that allows such direct-to-consumer advertising for drugs.

An important consideration for consumers – as well as health care providers and government regulators – is the degree of accuracy of the key claims made in these advertisements. A study published online in September 2013 in the Journal of General Internal Medicine (JGIM) suggests that such claims are too often either misleading or simply false.

For the JGIM study, researchers carefully analyzed the content of a randomly selected sample of 84 prescription drug ads and 84 over-the-counter drug ads that aired during nightly news broadcasts on ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN from 2008 through 2010. For each ad, the researchers identified the major claim being made and then compared it to the available evidence related to that claim. Each claim was then categorized as either objectively true, potentially misleading or false. The types of potentially misleading claims included exaggerations beyond the available evidence, omissions of important information and opinions.

The researchers determined that of the most-emphasized claims made in the sample of 168 drug ads analyzed, 33 percent were objectively true, 57 percent were potentially misleading and 10 percent were outright false. In other words, two-thirds of these claims were either false or potentially misleading.

For the prescription drug ads, 55 percent of the most-emphasized claims were potentially misleading, and only 2 percent were false. However, for the over-the-counter drug ads, 61 percent of such claims were potentially misleading, and 17 percent were false. Thus, for the latter, a total of more than three-quarters of the ads were found to be false or potentially misleading.

These findings are troubling but certainly not surprising, given the well-documented history of fraud committed by the pharmaceutical industry and the lack of adequate oversight of drug ads by the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission, the two federal agencies responsible for regulating such ads.

For consumers, the take-home message is clear: Never rely on television, or any direct-to-consumer advertising, for information regarding any drug.