Conflicting media messages: How ads for pharmaceuticals and dangerous foods have infiltrated health publications

Tuesday, March 21, 2006 by: Alexis Black
Tags: pharmaceutical advertising, dangerous drugs, disease prevention

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A February 2006 issue of Prevention magazine features a young, fit, happy looking couple on its cover, surrounded by headlines like, "How to be (and stay) happy" and "18 best foods to fight disease." Taken at face value, the approximately 4.5 by 6.5-inch, full color booklet appears to be a publication dedicated to exactly what its title implies: "Preventing" disease and health problems. It's when you crack open the cover that the magazine begins to contradict itself.

Sure, there is some valuable content on the 216 pages that follow -- such as an article on using peppermint as a natural way to ease irritable bowel syndrome and a Q & A with Dr. Andrew Weil about preventing osteoporosis naturally -- but all this is interspersed with materials that have little to do with a truly healthy lifestyle, namely a lot of advertisements for prescription drugs.

Of course, this is how prescription drugs have come to be viewed in many Americans' minds -- as part of a healthy lifestyle. People think if they are treating their health ailments with drugs, they are taking responsibility for their health, when, in fact, the opposite is usually true. In reality, they are only masking the symptoms of whatever health problems they are experiencing, while neglecting to fix the real problem, which is usually related to diet or lifestyle.

But most people don't see this. They don't think of prescription drugs as a sign of health weakness, but rather as a means of taking care of themselves. For that reason, it probably comes as no surprise to find a whopping 33 pages of ads for pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter drugs in something called Prevention magazine. For those who know better, or who take the time to think about it, there is great irony in this.

Prescription drugs have no ability whatsoever to prevent disease; they are given to patients who already have the symptoms of disease and are simply looking to cover them up. So what are advertisements for drugs like Plavix, Nexium, Crestor and Vitorin -- accompanied by several pages of fine print -- doing in a magazine like this? It probably has a lot to do with how ubiquitous prescription drug ads have become in all avenues of the popular press these days.

It's true that, in modern medicine, the prevention of disease has taken a back seat to the treatment of disease, as conventional medical doctors focus more and more on treating the symptoms of illness rather than determining its root cause. This is reflected in the popular media by the huge numbers of direct-to-consumer drug ads aimed at convincing patients themselves to ask their doctors about this drug or that drug.

With the big bucks in the pharmaceutical advertising business, and the dependence of most media outlets on advertisers to keep them financially afloat, it's no wonder we see these ads almost everywhere. But Prevention magazine?

Clearly, there is something wrong with this picture. It's not just drugs that stand out as being unusual here. Prevention magazine contains ads for instant rice, white bread, condensed soup, cow's milk and sugary granola bars, all of which contain unhealthy ingredients and arguably contribute to chronic disease. In most cases, these are products labeled with nutritious-sounding claims like "heart healthy" or "all natural," making them appear appropriate for a magazine that is supposed to be about disease prevention. However, more often than not, these are just buzzwords designed to appeal to a mildly health conscious consumer. A quick glance at the product's actual ingredients, in most cases, shows they are not all they are cracked up to be.

While there are some advertisements in Prevention magazine for truly healthy foods -- like California almonds, for example -- they are few and far between. That's because most of the healthiest foods available, like fruits, vegetables and other natural foods, are never the ones that get a lot of attention. Heavily advertised foods are usually processed, sugary, generally unhealthy foods manufactured by extraordinarily wealthy companies.

What kind of mixed messages are we sending in this world when we present a publication called Prevention magazine filled with ads promoting prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugs for the treatment of chronic diseases and other health woes? It is no wonder so many Americans are devastatingly confused about their health when they are facing these kinds of contradictions every day.

Pharmaceutical companies and junk food manufacturers have become overwhelmingly powerful forces in our modern world -- too powerful. They have even infiltrated Prevention magazine, which, taken without the ads, might actually be a valuable resource for individuals seeking health advice.

So, what can you do when faced with these sorts of contradictions? Most importantly, you must educate yourself and learn not to take things at face value. Just because something says it is "heart healthy" doesn't necessarily mean it is good for you, and just because something is called Prevention magazine doesn't necessarily mean it can be trusted as a guide to preventing diseases. Be wise. Think independently. Recognize the difference between disease prevention and disease treatment, and take your health into your own hands.

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