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Study exposes links between prescription drug advertising and unhealthy lifestyles

People with unhealthier lifestyle behaviours were more likely to respond to advertising of prescription medicines, a New Zealand study has found.

A survey of 2057 adults found that those with unhealthier lifestyles – less physical activity, higher levels of alcohol consumption, unhealthier nutritional habits and higher levels of illegal drug use – were more likely to respond to direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription medicines (DTCA).

The negative attitude towards doing exercise among these groups also influenced asking a doctor for a prescription, the study found.

New Zealand is, along with the US, one of the countries that allows direct‐to‐consumer advertising of prescription medicines (DTCA), and advertisements are not independently evaluated for the quality and validity of scientific statements unless someone complains.

This system has not prevented misleading advertisements, the authors said, with DTCA “criticised for altering individuals’ perceptions of health and illness, including encouraging the medicalisation of normal conditions and pharmaceuticalisation over healthy lifestyle choices.”

The authors looked at the impact of DTCA on levels of asking a doctor for a prescription; asking a doctor for more information about an illness; searching the internet for more information regarding an illness; and asking a pharmacist for more information about a drug.

Older patients, those with higher illegal drug consumption, or who did less exercise and had less healthy eating habits were more likely to ask a pharmacist for more information about a drug, as were all ethnic minorities, including Maori and Pacific Islanders, Indians and Chinese, when compared to New Zealand Europeans. 

The study authors have called for measures such as advertising of lifestyle changes as potential substitutes for the advertised medicines, where applicable.

“We call for the pharmaceutical industry to stress healthy lifestyle behaviours as an alternative to taking medications, where applicable,” the authors said.

“Furthermore, pharmaceutical companies should not target ‘at risk’ individuals, position their products based on individuals’ lifestyle characteristics and depict their product as a wonder drug. Instead, they need to make DTCA more ethical by explicitly and impartially stating that behavioural changes could be as effective as taking the advertised medicine”.

They also proposed that the government should “focus on increasing individuals’ health literacy, monitor advertising of lifestyle medicines and ensure that DTCA is more beneficial than harmful, to help individuals make informed decisions.

“It is hoped that this controversial, but powerful, medium can be utilised to improve the well-being of society,” they concluded.

The study was published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health 

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