Are Drug Ads Hazardous to Your Health?


A new study reveals that although there are some benefits to consumers regarding the drug ads they see on television, there are significant risks as well, which may have a negative impact on their health. Some experts believe drug ads are not doing such a good job of safeguarding consumer health.

According to the study, which was released online in the American Journal of Public Health, American consumers see up to 16 hours of drug advertisements per year on television. Dominick L. Frosch, PhD, assistant professor medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and lead author of the study, noted that “these ads are not doing a good job of helping consumers make better decisions about their health.”

The trouble with drug ads on television has not gone unnoticed by some members of Congress, including Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who want to see changes to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations concerning direct-to-consumer-advertising (DTCA). Pharmaceutical companies and other advocates for prescription drug ads claim that these ads provide educational information for consumers and improve the quality of care. Opponents say that the ads lead to inappropriate prescribing.


In a 2007 study from UCLA, researchers analyzed prescription drug ads on television during prime time and concluded that the ads had virtually no educational value and largely failed to inform consumers who is most at risk for which medical condition, what a person’s symptoms might be, and whether non-medical alternatives (e.g., exercise, dietary changes) might also be viable options.

The scientists also found that many of the ads depicted the drugs in terms of people losing control of their lives and then regaining it if they took the drug. More than half of the ads implied that the medication was a medical breakthrough.

In this newest study, Frosch and his colleagues admit that drug ads do offer some benefits to consumers, but that they are limited and need improvement. Most of the ads do not provide enough information to allow consumers to clearly identify whether the medication is right for them. The investigators noted that over dramatization and emotional depiction of a drug’s benefits can be misleading to consumers.

The authors of the study propose new guidelines for direct-to-consumer advertising. They suggest that ads should help consumers identify whether the treatment is right for them by providing information on the prevalence of the relevant conditions. Ads should provide consumers with accurate and specific information about the potential benefits and help consumers judge those benefits by offering quantitative information. Finally, ads should provide specific information about potential risks without visual or audio distractions to detract from the message.

Frosch DL et al. American Journal of Public Health, 2009 Nov. 12 online
Frosch DL et al. Annals of Family Medicine 2007; 5:6-13