RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The amount of money drug companies spend on TV ads has doubled in recent years. And it's no wonder: Studies show the commercials work. Consumers go to their doctor with a suggestion for a prescription drug they saw advertised on TV. Now a study in the "Annals of Family Medicine" raises questions about the message these ads promote.
NPR's Patty Neighmond reports.
PATTY NEIGHMOND: You are most likely to see drug ads during prime time, especially around the news. Researchers analyzed 38 ads aimed at people with conditions like hypertension, herpes, high cholesterol, depression, arthritis and allergies. The drug industry says these ads arm consumers with information. But researchers found that though the information was technically accurate, the tone was misleading.
UCLA psychologist Dominick Frosch headed the study.
Professor DOMINICK FROSCH (Psychologist, University of California Los Angeles): What we would see in these ads is that before taking the prescription drug, the character's life was out of control. And the loss of control really extended beyond just the impact of the health condition.
NEIGHMOND: For example, herpes patients were portrayed as being incapacitated for days, insomniacs utterly out of synch on the job, and depressed patients friendless and boring at parties.
Prof. FROSCH: When the character is then shown taking the drug, he then magically regains complete control of his life.
NEIGHMOND: None of the ads, of course, mentioned lifestyle changes that could also help treat the condition. After all, it's mass marketing. But in this case, Frosch says, prescription medications are not like soap.
Dr. David Kessler is dean of UCSF School of Medicine. He headed the FDA for seven years under the first President Bush and then President Clinton.
Dr. DAVID KESSLER (Dean, School of Medicine, University of California San Francisco): We tend to forget that pharmaceuticals are powerful agents. They're not just any commodity, and advertising them based on their emotional appeal is something that has great risks.
NEIGHMOND: Taking the wrong drug can be costly both physically and financially. Kessler opposed TV advertising for drugs when he was commissioner of the FDA. But after he left, rules were relaxed and TV ads for drugs permitted. That was a mistake, Kessler says. The FDA should be responsible for insuring overall accuracy both in tone and content. Bottom-line, he says, the agency should ask this question:
Dr. KESSLER: Does the ad, in the end, convey a fairly balanced view of what this drug is going to do, not some wish list?
NEIGHMOND: Kessler says a complete ban on TV ads for prescription drugs is unlikely now that it's already been approved. But certainly, he says, regulation can and should be tightened.
Patty Neighmond, NPR News.