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Drug risks raise doubt about ads

Some want tighter control of ads, in part to stem overuse of pills.

About these ads

As the list of prescription drugs raising concern about possible harmful side effects grows, new questions are being asked about the wisdom of inundating consumers with a blizzard of ads for medicines whose safety or effectiveness may later be called into question.

And make no mistake: Advertising pills directly to American consumers on television and in print has been a spectacular success for drug companies. Direct-to-consumer drug advertising has mushroomed from nothing in 1985 into a $3.8-billion-a-year business today. Some 44 percent of Americans now take at least one drug daily, as opposed to 39 percent a decade ago.

To be sure, this mass culture of medicine may be prone to overreaction in both directions. While many critics decry the proclivity of Americans to pop a pill at the slightest hint of a symptom - in part because of the influence of advertising - others note that people often flee from a drug at the first sign of safety problems, even if the safety studies are far from conclusive. At last one drug trial has had to be canceled only because patients testing the drug refused to keep taking it.

To help curb the overuse of drugs, some critics are renewing their call for a ban on consumer advertising altogether, which many believe is impossible, in part because the ads are protected by the First Amendment as commercial free speech.

In the absence of such a move, critics say the drug companies should at least be more heavily regulated and their commercials required to stick to the scientific facts and not be allowed to subtly imply greater claims.

"I don't think there's any question that direct-to-consumer advertising stimulates sales. If it didn't, companies wouldn't do it," says Sidney Wolfe, the director of health research at the consumer group Public Citizen.

Drugmakers and their watchdog, the Food and Drug Administration, say consumer ads provide helpful information to consumers. But critics see the mission of the industry differently: It's simply to sell drugs.

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