Here’s Why You’re Right to Be Skeptical of Those Prescription Drug Ads on T.V.

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Chances are, the litany of side effects that scrolls across the bottom of the screen or are mumbled in the last ten seconds of the ad turns you off from most of the drugs you see advertised on television. That said, when you’re sick and struggling to find something that makes you feel better, it can be hard not to latch on to any possibility that presents itself.

It can be hard – but it’s important to remain cautious. In fact, there are some studies out that show we all should be pretty wary when one of those advertisements sneaks its way around the fast-forward button.

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The ads have only been allowed by the FDA since 1997, and as recently as 2015, a report published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine by Yale University researchers found that none of the 97 included ads offered objective information about potential risks. Instead, they chose to focus on the relative improvement of patients’ quality of life. Since most of the ads targeted people with arthritis, diabetes, and other continuous ailments, that seemed to be a purposeful point of focus.

Another recent study, this one published in the Annals of Family Medicine, looked at how the ads depict people enjoying lavish, healthy lifestyles. Basically, instead of spending time discussing risk factors and other pertinent information, drug companies choose images that, again, promote the idea of an improved quality of life – almost 69% of the studied ads suggested the advertised drugs could lead to a more active and healthy lifestyle.

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Even though the FDA is technically responsible for policing the ads and ensuring that consumers are getting accurate information, most critics agree they’re not doing enough. The ads aren’t reviewed in advance, and once they’re out there, the damage could already be done, as internist Andy Lazris, M.D. explained to Health News Review:

“Everyone on the ads appears healthy, happy, dancing, and they get better. So people are led to believe a) the drug will be effective (which is often not the case), and b) that they should replace their old therapy with the newer one because it’s better (again, which is often not the case).”

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He continues, speaking about the numbers often rattled off in the television spots:

“And if they give you any numbers at all, they’re almost always the deceptive relative numbers that look really good, not the more realistic absolute numbers. So the benefits are over-exaggerated, the harms are downplayed or missed, and that’s how patients can get hurt.”

We’ve become a visual society, so often people latch onto those happy, smiling faces and ignore what’s being said about potential side effects. They do all encourage you to speak to your doctor, though, so that’s something.

Though, like the phrase “I was searching WebMD,” I would guess that most doctors heave a huge inner sigh at a conversation that begins, “I saw an ad on t.v.”

Regardless, your doctor is there to advise you on your health, so go ahead and ask about any and all potential medications that could improve your life. Just don’t be surprised if what they have to say about a certain drug is a far cry from what those happily parasailing people on television claim.