If you watch any TV, you've seen the barrage of advertisements for prescription medications. They always start by showing someone in distress—from insomnia, allergies, erectile dysfunction or other medical condition. But after taking the drug, the person is either sleeping soundly or running through the fields, depending on the original ailment, while the announcer reads a scary list of side effects in a voice so soothing that they almost sound fun.
The problem with such "direct-to-consumer," or DTC, advertisements is that they may generate excessive demand because people go straight to their doctors asking for this or that specific medication. In a 2006 survey by our National Survey Research Center, 78 percent of doctors said that patients asked them at least occasionally to prescribe drugs they had seen advertised on television, and 67 percent said they sometimes did so. And don't expect the ad barrage to let up. While Congress recently gave the FDA more authority to regulate ads, it rejected a measure that would have allowed the agency to place a moratorium on ads for new drugs that raise safety concerns. The U.S. is one of only two countries in the world (the other is New Zealand) where such ads are legal.
Well, starting this month, Consumer Reports is introducing an entertaining new online video series that will track and report on such ads. The videos are hosted by Associate Editor, Jamie Hirsh, and produced by the ConsumerReports TV News crew. This first installment concerns an interesting class of medications that are approved to treat something called "restless leg syndrome." That condition may sound fanciful, but it's a real problem. Something like 3 percent of Americans suffer from RLS, which is characterized by an uncontrollable impulse to keep moving your legs even when you are trying to go to sleep—which obviously could make sleep difficult.
Several years ago, doctors discovered that drugs that were originally developed to treat Parkinson's disease could provide meaningful help to people who suffered from moderate to severe forms of this condition. But the drugs have serious side effects - one of the more bizarre involves a propensity for uncontrolled sexual or gambling impulses, as our video mentions. And while these medications may provide welcome relief to some RLS patients, the ads could leave anyone who ever suffered fidgetiness when trying to go to sleep to wonder whether he or she has RLS and should seek treatment.
We leave the rest to the video to explain, and we urge you to check back next month for the next installment in this fun and informative series!—Kevin McKean, Editorial Director
Find more information on drugs commonly used to treat RLS in Consumer Reports' Medical Guide: