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Originally published October 15 2008

Drug Ads Mislead Consumers by Exaggerating Benefits, Downplaying Risks

by David Gutierrez, staff writer

(NaturalNews) Direct-to-consumer drug ads tend to emphasize the benefits of drugs and downplay the risks, health experts warn.

"There's currently, and has been for a long time, an unfair balance between the presentation of the risks and the benefits of these ads," said Ruth S. Day, director of Duke University's Medical Cognition Laboratory.

Day has conducted research demonstrating that while 80 percent of people who see a TV ad for a drug are able to remember its benefits, only 20 percent can remember its side effects. Day attributes this, in part, to the practice of reciting a drug's side effects more quickly than its benefits, or distracting viewers with simultaneous images and sounds.

Cardiologist Robert Marshall said that many of his patients are misled by drug ads.

"We spend a lot of time explaining away why they shouldn't be on certain medications, or at least should be addressing other things that should be as important, like lifestyle, diet, exercise, that make as big or a bigger difference in the long term," Marshall said.

While the ads do not necessarily lie, they may imply that the drugs work better than they really do.

"In the case of [sleep drug] Lunesta," said Steven Woloshin of Dartmouth Medical School, "if I don't take the drug, it's going to take me about 45 minutes to fall asleep on average. If I take the drug, it'll take about 30 minutes."

"It is frankly fairly clear that the majority of what's happening has a marketing effect and not an educational effect," said Nancy H. Nielsen, president-elect of the American Medical Association.

For every dollar spent on direct-to-consumer ads, drug companies make $6 in sales. Total industry spending on such ads totaled almost $5 billion in 2006, 80 percent more than was spent in 2002. This was a greater total increase than the industry's investment in the development of new drugs.

"I think the main problem with directed consumer ads is they don't give .... the most fundamental information," Woloshin said, "which is how well does the drug work?"

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