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Women Urged to Be Wary of Ads Promoting Unwanted Drugs

er are all examples of symptoms or normal physiological events that are now presented to consumers as being in need of long-term drug treatment.

Prescription drugs used to be advertised mainly in medical journals aimed at health care providers. But since 1997, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) loosened the restrictions on direct-to-consumer advertising, pharmaceutical companies have taken their messages directly to the people. They claim these ads are good for consumers because they educate and encourage individuals to be more involved in their medical choices.

Marcia Angell, a former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, once put it acidly, "They are no more in the business of educating the public than a beer company is in the business of educating people about alcoholism."

Because of direct-to-consumer advertising, more people request prescription drugs from their doctors, and most doctors comply. Most lay people -- and even many physicians -- are not aware that drug ads are not checked by the FDA for accuracy beforehand, and are pulled only after complaints are made and verified.

This usually takes about six months, and the drug company is given a grace period of several additional months, by which time most ads would have been changed anyway. A company is rarely required to run a corrective ad, and there is no other penalty for misleading the public. Thus, while the FDA sends hundreds of letters each year requiring drug companies to retract their ads, most people don't hear about them.

The FDA does not require new drugs to be proven better than competing, often cheaper, drugs already on the market. Though many drugs for chronic conditions like arthritis are taken every day for years, pre-approval trials typically last no more than a few months and long-term safety studies are almost never done. Life-threatening effects may come to light only after the drug is approved and used widely.
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