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In 1997, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) changed the advertising rules and allowed pharmaceutical companies to promote their products on television. The FDA included guidelines that required direct-to-consumer advertising to present a fair balance between drug information and its risk.

Wendy Macias, associate professor, University of Georgia-Athens, and her team, surveyed pharmaceutical television advertising to see how much attention was paid to a fair balance between information and risk. Although, the FDA does not define “a fair balance,” Macias devised a 4-tier system:

  1. No mention of a drug’s side effects.
  2. Less than 10% of the time is given to risk information.
  3. More than 10% of the time deals with risk information.
  4. Provides equal time to both benefits and risks of the drug.

Researchers found that 88% of the advertising spent more than 10% of the time providing information about a drug’s risk. About 10% of the advertisers met the minimum requirement of mentioning the risk, but spending less than 10% of the time doing so. Only 2% of the ads studied were in clear violation of never mentioning the risk associated with a drug.

Few advertisers were found to provide what Macias, and her team, consider a proactive presentation giving equal time to both the benefits and risks of the drug. Most ads, they feel, were presented in such a way that the consumer would have to be paying close attention and be adept at processing the information to really understand the risks as well as the benefits.

Critics claim that direct-to-consumer advertising drives up cost of medication, steer consumers to the more expensive medication that they may not even need. Proponents of pharmaceutical advertising feel they are doing well enough in educating the consumer. 

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