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Advertising health care: a history lesson

June 8, 2013
By C. Paul Martin, M.D. , Marshall Independent

Misdirected and deceptive advertising is rampant in American culture and its media. The United States is only one of two major countries in the world which allows medical advertising, and we both gain and suffer for it. Recently, I encountered an amusing but valuable story about medical chicanery exemplified by a 19th century water cooler salesman as related by author Jeff Kacirk.

William J. Bailey, a Harvard-educated physician (and con man), promoted radioactive radium (water) as a cure for coughs, flu and other common maladies. Added to drinking water, his potion was used to cure "difficult metabolism, mental illness, headaches, diabetes, anemia, asthma, and constipation. His aphrodisiac Arium renewed "happiness and youthful thrill into the lives of married people"

The American public continues to be consistently faced with an ever increasing burden of information, sometimes valuable but often confusing and/or misleading, concerning the use of prescribed and over-the-counter (OTC) medications. During the latter years of my practice and especially at the present time, questions about medication information, usage and cost have been a primary patient and consumer concern.

"That stuff sounds too good to be true"

If such a thought springs into your head when reading a medical-type advertisement or when seeing a program, especially commercials, your wise instinct is warning you of the innate questions raised by such information. Your curiosity should then lead you to examine these promotions more carefully.

Mortimer J. Adler is best known for his reading program "Great Books of the Western World" that arose from his interest in the philosophy of classical writers. He believed "that reading is a basic tool in the living of a good life." In 1940, he promoted his ideas in "How to Read a Book" in which he outlined a technique for obtaining maximum efficiency and optimal value from the printed word.

With a salute to Professor Adler, I would suggest that we as consumers of health care adopt his strategy in learning how to read (and evaluate) a health advertisement/product. Two recent print ads you may have seen exemplify the need for careful reading and evaluation of the content of the subjects and the methods and devices used to attract your attention and convince you to buy the product.

Products promoting weight loss are often part of "sensational" advertising. A recent pictorial ("Before and After") ad for a "High Speed Diet Formula" featured an unnamed product from the Himalayas (mountains)"available for the first time in the U.S." The copy related the puzzling fact that this "all-natural" diet formula is "bio-active" and contains no drugs" but destroys fat" (!) However remarkable are the claims for the product, notably missing are the chemical name, the ingredients, and the manufacturer. No proof of safety or effectiveness is offered, but "very impressive anecdotal (testimonial) evidence" and a "Lifetime double-your-money-back" guarantee are promised!

Cautionary warnings are rampant throughout the ad because the product is "ultra-fast acting, will reverse years of overeating, and contains highly-unusual (unnamed) ingredients (three of which are extremely hard to find" This hyperbole of claims and promises alerts you that no product can possibly fulfill this press.

A second ad for a product to treat four specific but unrelated skin conditions is notable for the anecdotal (testimonial) information given, the failure to list the "FDA approved" active ingredient, the manufacturer, the safety and the proof of efficacy. As usual in these ads, the product is not available from physicians or pharmacists, but is available by phone. Free supplies are offered!

Thinking positively, what should consumers watch for in these types of adsperhaps "STOP SIGNS?"

Product ingredients and manufacturer are not listed

Small print contains qualifying statements about the product

Personal stories but no scientific proof given

Deceptive photographs of "Before and After" conditions

Free supplies or free trials offered

Product obtained by phone or Internet

In addition, the consumer should check every medical advertisement and product for the critical warning regarding its usage:

"This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease."

The informed and prudent consumer realizes that factual advertising will give him or her guidance in purchasing choices. However, remember: "THINGS THAT ARE TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE USUALLY ARE TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE!



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