Advertising is all about presenting a product in the most flattering light possible. Still, there are limits to what marketers can and cannot say, particularly when it comes to hawking items that directly affect consumers' physical well-being, such as pharmaceuticals.

That's what makes the results of a new study led by Mount Sinai School of Medicine particularly shocking: It found that a measly 18% of pharmaceutical ads comply with FDA guidelines.

The study, published last week in the journal Public Library of Science One, looked at physician-directed ads in medical journals during November 2008. The drugs in the ads included quite a few high-risk ones, including cancer meds.

P.S.: May Cause Death

Of the ads the researchers looked at, over half (58%) failed to quantify serious risks including death, and only 52% had appropriate references so that doctors could go and check the data and the studies themselves. But there were many other offenses according to the study. For example:

  • Novo Nordisk's (NVO) ad for NovoLog, a fast-acting insulin for diabetics, claimed a certain efficacy statistic on the front page. But in the references listed in the third page of the ad, the actual data was misrepresented.
  • Neither Pfizer's (PFE) ad for the world's best-selling drug, cholesterol fighter Lipitor, nor AstraZeneca's (AZN) ad for Crestor had references to support the drugs' efficacy claims.
  • Eli Lilly's (LLY) ad for Alimta, a drug for a certain type of advanced lung cancer, showed an apparently healthy person windsurfing. The image clearly misrepresents the patients who should receive the drug.

It's important to note that no company stood out as a particular offender, according to Dr. Deborah Korenstein, lead author of the study and Associate Professor of Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Is Your Doctor Influenced by Slick Ads?

Journal advertising is the most profitable form of drug marketing, with a $5 return for every $1 spent, according to previous research. That's a great return for the companies that advertise, but at what cost to the public health?

Since physicians are actually the ones prescribing the drugs, the fact that so few ads adhere to the guidelines -- and barely even convey basic information necessary for safe prescribing -- is disturbing. Even if they deny it, doctors' prescribing practices are influenced by these ads, Korenstein said via an email interview.

Previous studies have shown that exposure to such ads was associated with less-effective, lower-quality prescribing decisions. "For that reason," Korenstein says, "it seems important that ads contain the relevant information for safe prescribing."

It's officially the FDA's responsibility to make sure pharmaceutical ads adhere to guidelines. However, its $9 million annual budget for compliance pales in comparison to the industry's $58 billion annual marketing spending.

As long as there's money to be made from ads, companies will continue to push the limits of aggressive marketing. That leaves the responsibility for seeing through the flashy ads resting squarely on the shoulders of physicians. Let's just hope that they're not too swayed by slick marketing copy.

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Motley Fool contributor
Melly Alazraki does not own any shares in the companies listed. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Pfizer.



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