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Drug risks raise doubt about ads

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"Its [aim is] no more to improve our health than it is the fast-food industry's mission to improve our diet," says Dr. John Abramson, a physician critical of the drug industry and author of "Overdosed America."

"Unfortunately the advertising gets handled by the same companies that market soft drinks and shampoos and automobiles and they bring the same light-hearted, image-conscious approach...," says Jerry Avorn, a professor at Harvard Medical School and author of "Powerful Medicines: the Benefits, Risks, and Costs of Prescription Drugs."

In the end, they're just drugs, not solutions for living happier lives, he says. A higher standard should be asked "for chemicals that you put in your body to change the way your cells work," he says. "It ought to be more science driven and less image driven."

The millions of people using Vioxx, a pain reliever pulled from the market because of health concerns in September, "was a direct result of consumer advertising," Dr. Avorn says. "Direct-to-consumer advertising ensures that the greatest number of patients will be exposed to a drug at the very moment we know the least about it."

He and others say companies want to hype drugs right after they are approved for use by the FDA, while they still own the patent. Doctors are often pressured by patients to prescribe the drug, even threatening to go to another physician who will prescribe it.

By asking about advertised drugs, patients can see themselves as empowered and participating more in their own health care. But there's a downside to that. "At a time when the doctor-patient visit is increasing short, on average about 10 minutes," Avorn says, these discussions can "eat up several of those precious minutes" with patients saying "I think I need Drug X I saw on television last night." Doctors have little time with patients as it is, he says, and don't want to spend it "trying to talk patients out of taking drugs they don't need."

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