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Protecting Patients from Misleading “Bad Drug” Ads

Ominous television ads disguised as health alerts or public service announcements can be more than just a nuisance. That’s why lawmakers are stepping in to protect people against the ads’ misleading tactics and their potentially dangerous health consequences.  

“Bad drug” advertising is usually aimed at recruiting participants for class action lawsuits, or otherwise drumming up business for legal services, by alleging injury from a drug or medical device. Patients may be encouraged to call a 1-800 number and be told they are “entitled to compensation.”  

But the tactics used in these ads have tangible effects on people’s understanding of their medical treatments, and pose serious risks to patients’ health.  

Misleading Ads Have Medical Consequences 

When law firms make their advertisements look like medical advice, the resulting confusion can have serious consequences. According to a recent survey, a quarter of patients responded to a “bad drug” ad by stopping their prescribed medication without talking to their doctor. Older Americans are especially susceptible to such misleading ads, which are made to look like government alerts or public service announcements.

More than half of medical providers reported in the same survey that some of their patients had stopped taking a medication after seeing a deliberately frightening ad. Abruptly stopping a treatment can have serious, even deadly, consequences. Interrupting treatment can cause chronic conditions to worsen, requiring emergency care or hospitalization. Making those changes without medical advice may put patients’ lives at risk.  

Florida Sets an Example for Protecting Patients 

The Florida State Legislature has joined a handful of states leading the way in reigning in these deceptive practices with consumer protection bill HB 1205. The bill takes aim at the language used in attorney’s ads, barring words like “medical alert,” “health alert,” “drug alert,” or “public service announcement” in advertising, and prohibiting use of the term “recall” if the product has not been officially recalled.  

The bill also blocks the use of governmental agency logos and requires that sponsors of the advertisement identify themselves. Perhaps most importantly, future ads must advise viewers, “Consult your physician before making any decision regarding prescribed medication or medical treatment.” 

These important principles offer a model for similar action in other states. Law firms are free to market themselves to potential clients but not to lie about established treatments, or disguise their ads as medical advice. Plans for medical treatment should be made by individual patients and their health care providers – without undue influence from lawyers seeking big payouts. 

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