September 19. 2013 9:20PM

Dartmouth College helps in a study that finds most drug ads could be misleading

Special to the Union Leader

The next time a woman of a certain age comes on television to say an osteoporosis pill will make a marathoner out of you or that cold medicine will hardly be noticeable in a cup of tea, consumers may want to view those ads with a healthy dose of skepticism.

A recent study conducted in part by the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy & Clinical Practice reports that six out of 10 television ads for pharmaceuticals could be misleading.

The study, conducted by Dartmouth researcher Adrienne E. Faerber and David H. Kreling of The University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Pharmacy, was recently published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

“I want consumers to be able to get access to high-quality information on the drugs that they take,” Faerber said. “And what we’re doing with this research is showing that maybe TV is not the best place to be going to get information about their drugs.”

Persuasion vs. information

The idea for the study came out of a 15-year debate among policymakers and researchers who wondered whether television ads were more persuasion than information. To underscore the relationship between advertising and pharmaceutical companies, the researchers pointed out that in 2009, these companies spent $4.8 billion on advertising. In comparison, only $3 billion was spent that year on nonprescription products.

To gauge the veracity of the commercials, researchers gathered data from the Vanderbilt TV News Archive, an indexed archive of recordings of the nightly news broadcasts and commercials shown on ABC, CBS and NBC since 1968 and on CNN since 1992.

Faerber said they chose this time slot because the nightly news is a prime time for advertisers to reach both a large and an older audience, their biggest consumer.

In all, the researchers had trained analysts look at 168 TV advertisements for prescription and over-the-counter drugs broadcast between 2008 and 2010. Their job was to identify statements that were strongly emphasized in the ad and then decide if those claims were truthful, potentially misleading or false.

Misleading claims

At the end of the study, they found all-out falsehoods in prescription drug commercials happened only one in 10 times, likely because false advertising is illegal. However, potentially misleading claims occurred six out of 10 times. These are described by researchers as, “claims (that) left out important information, exaggerated information, provided opinions, or made meaningless associations with lifestyles.”

A commercial for an osteoporosis medication depicts several healthy older women as extremely active. Faerber said women who are active don’t generally have osteoporosis and that even those who take an osteoporosis drug, if they aren’t already active, won’t be no matter what the drug.

“That kind of association, I think as people become more aware, they may see (these ads) the next time and view them with a more skeptical eye,” Faerber said.

Commercials for over-the-counter drugs played a little more fast and loose with the truth, according to the research. In those ads, eight of 10 claims were misleading or false.

One example was an ad for a usually fizzy and strong-tasting cold medicine. The ad claimed this new product was tasteless and didn’t fizz and, so, could be added to any drink. However, the second ingredient in the product was sucrose — basically sugar — which means the product likely has a taste.

One reason such commercials exist, Faerber said, is because the Food and Drug Administration oversees prescription drug advertising while the Federal Trade Commission oversees advertising for nonprescription drugs. The two agencies have different definitions of false and misleading claims. For example, the FDA interpretation says prescription drug advertising must include information about the harms of the drug, but information on harms is left out of most over-the-counter drug ads, according to the researchers.

“It may be that these organizations need to talk more or to come up with a better standard,” she said.