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Poll: Prescription Drug Ads Influence Consumers

People 50-plus more likely than younger adults to get free samples of requested medicine

Americans battle depression, insomnia, restless legs and "leaky pipes," among other conditions, in television advertisements for prescription drugs. But do those ads on TV and elsewhere influence consumers to request certain medications from their physicians?

In a word, yes, says a new AARP Bulletin survey.

Of 1,019 adults polled, 10 percent say they have asked their doctors for a prescription for a drug they saw advertised. And a quarter of those respondents (26 percent) say they were told the drug wasn't appropriate for their condition. But more than two in five (41 percent) say they were given the prescription they requested. Another one in four say they received free samples from their doctor.

Respondents under age 50 were more likely to get the prescription they wanted (49 percent) compared with older adults (29 percent) who made such requests, the poll found. People age 50 and older were almost three times more likely to be given free samples than their younger counterparts (45 percent vs. 16 percent).

Nearly all of those polled (91 percent) say they've seen or heard prescription drug ads, most often on TV (78 percent) and in magazines (31 percent). One in five saw such ads on the Internet (19 percent) and about one in seven saw them in newspapers or heard them on the radio.

Debate over drug ads

The direct-to-consumer marketing of prescription medications has been controversial since the government in 1997 relaxed restrictions on drug ads. Since then, drug manufacturers have spent billions of dollars on advertising. Such ads are banned in developed countries except the United States and New Zealand.

TV ads for drugs abound in the United States. In an ad for the erectile dysfunction drug Cialis, a cozy midlife couple soak in matching antique bathtubs — outdoors. Three women made of shiny brass pipes tell viewers about a solution for their "leaky pipes" in the ad for the bladder-control drug Vesicare. And restless legs syndrome (RLS) causes a woman to jump out of bed in the middle of the night in the TV ad for the drug Requip.

Pharmaceutical companies say that direct-to-consumer marketing educates consumers about medical conditions and possible treatment options, making them better partners with their doctors. But poll respondent Risa Mandelberg, 62, of Encino, Calif., believes the ads do not serve patients' best interests. She says her husband, a physician, told her about patients who request certain drugs after seeing them advertised, but that in some cases, "it may not be the correct drug for them."

"The ads are trying to promote a source of buyers for something that may be not be the best solution for a condition," Mandelberg says. "The ads don't provide enough information to make the patient more informed or educated."

Overlooking drug information

Prescription drug ads by law must disclose possible side effects. The potential side effects of the RLS drug Requip, for example — uncontrolled gambling, sexual or other urges, and falling asleep while driving — seem daunting. But not everyone pays attention to that information, including 31 percent of people age 50 and up and 25 percent of younger adults, according to the Bulletin survey. Overall, 71 percent of respondents do usually take note of the safety and side-effect information, and 68 percent say they find it helpful.

But 15 percent find potential side effects frightening, and 13 percent consider the information confusing.

Those polled were asked about the price of advertised and unadvertised prescription drugs to treat the same condition. Slightly more than half say they believe that advertised medication is usually more expensive; 25 percent think there's no difference in pricing.

Carole Fleck is a senior editor at the AARP Bulletin.

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