Have you ever seen an ad, maybe showing smiling people in a field or on a beach and little else, and wondered just what it was selling? Chances are it was an ad for a prescription drug. According to a new study published in the December issue of the Journal of Family Practice, such ads may do the public more harm than good. When researchers examined 320 print ads promoting 101 different drug brands, they found that by and large the ads failed to include information about how a drug works, the length of treatment, alternative therapies and the drug's success rate. As a result, consumers are often poorly educated about the drugs. "These ads are designed to encourage patients to request the advertised drugs from physicians," says co-author Richard L. Kravitz of the University of California, Davis, who notes that this can lead to three outcomes.

In the best-case scenario, the patient requests a drug that is appropriate for her condition. But if the patient asks for an inappropriate drug, the doctor may give in and prescribe it, potentially endangering the patient's health. Also, the patient and doctor "can get locked in an argument that imperils the doctor-patient relationship." Despite the lack of information found in most direct-to-consumer drug ads, their proponents often cite patient education as a reason for why the U.S. should allow such ads--despite the fact that no other English-speaking country does. "The medical community should exert pressure on the drug industry to incorporate more information about conditions and treatments in its advertising," the team writes. "If such information is not provided voluntarily by the industry in future advertising, the medical establishment should lobby for regulation."