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Study Calls for Clearer Drug Ads

Feb 18, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP A new study on drug advertisements has concluded that consumers could make better decisions on which medication to use if packaging provided better messaging.  HealthDay News reports that the study suggests that such decisions could enhanced if medications included a so-called “facts box” that indicates the benefits and disadvantages of the drug.

"People just don't have access to information about how well drugs work," said Dr. Steven Woloshin, associate professor of medicine and community and family medicine at Dartmouth Medical School and co-author of the study, according to HealthDay. "They get exposed to billions of dollars of ads, but the ads don't tell them the most fundamental information they need," Dr. Woloshin added, noting that the facts box would provide those details.  The study was published in the February 17 online edition of Annals of Internal Medicine.

Woloshin and his team conducted two separate trials and looked at how consumers chose medications when they had seen advertisements that both did and did not include the fact box, said HealthDay, which explained that the box is a table that explains health outcomes that occur with and without the drug.  The trial, said HealthDay, analyzed advertisements for two different prescription heartburn and two different cardiovascular medications.

Recently, we reported that Direct-to-Consumer marketing was not hitting its mark.  At that time, in January, a study found that ads for prescription medications did not have the effect industry first believed, according to a report issued by MSNBC.  Now, Woloshin is saying that current advertising “Can be very misleading,” pointing out, “For example, they say this drug reduces your risk of stroke by 30 percent, but they won't tell you 30 percent of what," he said, reported HealthDay.

Woloshin pointed out that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that drug makers list a drug’s risk; however, a listing of benefits is not required, reported HealthDay.  "But in order to make any sense of side effects, you have to know what's the benefit.  Is it worth exposing myself to the chance of these side effects? You only can decide that if you know how well the drug works," Woloshin told HealthDay.

The researchers found that when fact boxes were made available to consumers, that those consumers were able to make more meaningful drug choices, said HealthDay News, which noted that when the participants were questioned about their choice for heartburn medication, the majority—68 percent—chose what the researchers deemed the “superior drug” choice versus 31 percent who looked at ads that did not contain the fact boxes.  The study concluded that approximately 80 of those provided with the fact box understood that the side effects were similar versus 38 percent of the nonbox group.  Similarly, 72 percent of participants who were provided ads with facts clearly understood and were able to describe drug risks versus a mere nine percent of those exposed to nonfact ads.

Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine, agreed saying, "Direct-to-consumer drug advertising is controversial in medical circles, largely out of concern that drug companies will talk patients into preferences not in their best interest."

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