If you watch television or read magazines, it’s likely that you have seen advertisements for prescription drugs. While these ads can help raise awareness about certain medical conditions, their contents should be taken with a grain of salt. When you see an ad for a prescription drug, here are some things to consider.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires televised drug ads to include the following information:
- the drug’s brand name and generic name (for example, the drug with the brand name Lyrica has the generic name pregabalin),
- at least one FDA-approved use for the drug,
- the drug’s major risks and side effects, and
- detailed information about how the drug works (including drug interactions and less serious side effects) or at least two sources (such as a Web site or toll-free telephone number) where people can get such information.
However, the FDA’s power to regulate advertising is limited. Ads are not submitted to the FDA for approval before they are used. Instead, the FDA takes action after they learn that a prescription drug ad might be breaking the law—examples of this include stating that a drug can treat diseases that it is not approved to treat by the FDA and making claims about the drug’s effectiveness that are not supported by evidence. This means that the general public could see ads that violate the law before the FDA can remove the ads from circulation. That said, large-scale advertising campaigns are expensive, so it is unlikely that a drug company would intentionally release ads that do not follow the FDA’s regulations.
Besides requiring a drug company to remove ads that violate the law, the FDA may ask the company to publish a correction, or the FDA may take the company to court. These actions are taken if the misleading information could pose a risk to people’s health.
Side effects and risks
Federal law requires televised prescription drug ads to list the drug’s most severe risks, such as life-threatening drug interactions and allergic reactions, but televised ads do not have to list all the drug’s side effects. Print ads must list all known side effects and major drug interactions, but these lists can be confusing and hard to read. The lack of emphasis on side effects and interactions can lead consumers to believe that a drug is a good fit when it may not be.
Consumers should keep in mind that detailed information about a drug in a print ad is no substitute for a doctor’s advice. Things you may not even think about—such as grapefruit juice, herbal supplements, or nonprescription pain relievers—can interact with prescription medications. Your doctor can tell you if any medications you take or medical conditions you have might interact with or cause side effects from a particular drug.
Many prescription drugs, such as narcotic pain relievers and certain antidepressants, can be habit-forming. People who take these drugs may become dependent on them. This means that once they start taking a drug, it’s hard to stop. When they do stop, they’re likely to experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.
The ad for a habit-forming drug might not directly say that the drug is habit-forming. Instead, the ad may advise potential users of the drug that they should not stop taking it without talking to their doctor first. The ad may also warn patients with a history of substance abuse that they should not take the drug.
Costs and other concerns
Ads are not required to tell you how much a prescription drug costs or whether a generic equivalent (the same drug without the brand name) is available. Brand-name medications are typically more expensive than their generic equivalents, even though both versions contain the same ingredients and meet the FDA standards for safety and quality. In addition, newer brand-name drugs tend to be more expensive than older brand-name drugs.
Critics of prescription drug ads say the ads encourage patients to ask for expensive brand-name drugs when a less expensive option might work just as well. Many conditions can be treated with several different drugs, and your doctor may prescribe a different drug than the one you’ve seen advertised to treat your condition. It may be necessary to try more than one drug before finding a treatment that works for you. You should talk to your doctor about all your treatment options and go over their costs and benefits.
– E. Nielsen
For more information, ask your physician, call askMDAnderson at 877-632-6789, or read the FDA's guidelines on prescription drug advertising.
OncoLog, August 2016, Volume 61, Number 8