Archived Story

Watch out for those pesky side effects

Published 9:50pm Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Perhaps it’s because I’m getting older and using more and more prescriptions to help me deal with my ailments that’s causing me to pay attention to all these commercials about medications.
What I have really noticed is that during a 60-second commercial, the announcer spends 45 seconds talking about side effects associated with that particular prescription, 10 seconds noting it works well and five seconds providing a toll-free number to learn more about the medication.
With many of these medications, it seems as if the cure can be worse than the ailment.
From side effects that range from minor ones — loss of appetite or drowsiness — to, possibly, death, the complications that may arise by taking these medications are many. Yes, ever since there have been medications, there have been side effects. But the side effects seem to be the “stars” of medication commercials rather than the good the medication can accomplish.
The Food and Drug Administration requires the direct-to-consumer commercials must present a “fair balance” of the benefits and side effects of a drug. I’ve noticed that “fair balance” means the announcer quickly mentions the side effects, often as a list of said side effects scrolls quickly on the TV screen. “Saturday Night Live” addressed this technique with a parody commercial about a fake birth-control pill.
That let’s me know I’m not alone in noticing these somewhat worrisome commercials for prescription or over-the-counter drugs. We must not forget the OTC drugs. Their side effects are just as bad as the prescription drugs.
Just how serious is this situation? Well, Duke University is studying it. Ruth Day, a researcher at Duke, has been studying drug commercials since the late 1990s.
Her research, among other research, indicates that drug’s benefits are listed first in a commercial and followed by side effects because people tend to remember the first items on a list more than they recall the last items on the list. It’s just simple human nature.
And it’s just simply human nature that when I hear 45 seconds of side effects, that gets my attention. One may need a new medication to counter the side effects of another medication. But ask yourself: What side effects does this medication I’m taking to counter the side effects of another medication have?
As for these drug commercials, they have a side effect on me. As soon as one comes on the TV screen, my reaction is to change channels and hope I don’t come across another drug commercial on the next channel I select.
Mike Voss is the senior editor/reporter in the newsroom at the Washington Daily News.

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