Medical Journal Drug Ads Sometimes Short on Facts

Study finds a third lacked statistics, studies to back up claims

Randy Dotinga

Randy Dotinga

Published on February 15, 2005

TUESDAY, Feb. 15, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- A new study claims that drug advertisements in medical journals often fail miserably at providing enough information for doctors to make informed prescribing decisions.

Researchers found that about a third of 438 ads studied didn't refer to any studies or statistics about the drugs they were promoting. Another 20 percent referred to "data on file" at pharmaceutical companies, but the wide majority of those drug makers didn't provide it upon request.

"All that information needs to be out there, and it currently isn't," said study co-author Dr. David Schriger, a professor of emergency medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles. "In this area, the cards just aren't on the table."

However, the editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine doesn't seem worried. "'Advertising is advertising and nothing more.' This study proves it," Dr. Jeffrey Drazen said in a statement, saying he was quoting a former editor of the journal, Dr. Franz Ingelfinger. "Our readers have no trouble distinguishing advertising from editorial content -- it is physically separate and has a different look and feel."

There are hundreds of medical journals, tackling subjects from cancer and heart disease to alcoholism and sports medicine. Like any other trade publications, they often rely on advertising for funding, but there are few rules about how drug companies can promote their products to doctors.

Schriger and his colleagues examined 438 advertisements from 10 American medical journals, including two that may be the most influential -- the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association. (The latter journal declined to respond to the study, saying the ads -- which all appeared in 1999 -- were too old.)

The researchers looked for references to data about the effectiveness of the drugs -- studies, journal articles and "data on file." In other words, proof to support claims made in the ads.

"To maximize the public's health, anybody who's taking care of patients should have access to all this information," Schriger said.

The findings appear in the Feb. 15 issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Of the ads, 126 -- 29 percent -- didn't offer any references to support claims about how well the drugs worked. The others referred to a variety of sources, including journal articles, government documents and Web sites.

The researchers made 88 requests for "data on file," writing "under a variety of aliases and addresses, so it seemed like a bunch of people were writing to them," Schriger said. Only 37 of the 88 targeted companies bothered to respond, and many that did weren't very forthcoming, the researchers say. More than half of the 37 responders refused to provide the requested information, either because of company policy or because it was proprietary.

"A concerned clinician cannot get all the information," Schriger said. "It's hard to argue about how that could be a good thing."

The researchers also found that most of original research mentioned in ads was funded by a drug company or an affiliated author. By contrast, a recent review found that just 8 percent of 400 studies printed in journals received drug company funding.

In other words, the ads in medical journals were much likely to cite research done by pharmaceutical companies rather than independent research.

What should be done? Schriger thinks the government should require drug ads to provide references. He'd also like to see U.S. officials follow the lead of their Canadian counterparts and require drug companies to provide "data on file" upon request.

More information

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has information to help consumers make informed decisions about medicines.

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