05/13/2013 01:32 pm ET Updated Jul 13, 2013

Do TV Commercials Tell the Truth About Drugs?

It's no secret that advertisers stretch the truth when they make trendy ads to get you to buy their products. That's why pictures of scrumptious pasta dishes and juicy steaks look better on TV than when you visit a local food chain for dinner.

There are many reasons to be skeptical when you see drugs ads on TV. Doctors don't like these ads because patients end up asking for the newest drugs even though older products may be safer, more effective and less expensive. There is evidence that drug ads on TV may influence consumers to overmedicate themselves. Some critics also point out that celebrity endorsements unduly influence the public.

My concern in this area is more basic. Namely, there is a big difference between stretching the truth for foods (or other items) vs. medication. Whenever parents see ads for a cold medicine, they are being duped into believing these products work. In reality, cold medicines have little upside in children.

However, most of the ads I see for cold and flu medicine just tell parents the drug works rather than comparing it to other products on the market. As a doctor, what irks me the most are "competitive ads" that inaccurately comment about another company's product.

One of worst offenders in this area is a series of recent commercials for the acid-reducing drug Zantac. The commercial I watched stated that Zantac works right away whereas the full effects of Prevacid aren't noticed for 24 hours. This is true, but blatantly misleading.

I like Zantac and recommend it to my patients all the time. The advantage of Zantac is that you can take it without regard to meals, there are few side effects and it works relatively quickly. (Zantac blocks acid production so it does not work as rapidly as antacids, which absorb acids that have already been released into the stomach.)

Prevacid and similar products are called "proton pump inhibitors." This class of drugs also decreases stomach acid. The advantage of Prevacid is that it reduces stomach acid better than Zantac. The disadvantage is that Prevacid is more difficult to use because you have to take it 30 to 60 minutes before eating for it to work properly. That being said, Prevacid works as quickly as Zantac. I know this both as a doctor and a patient who has chronic stomach reflux.

The reason it's not a lie to say the full affects of Prevacid won't be felt for 24 hours is simply because the medication works for 24 hours. (Zantac only works for 12 hours.) In other words, if the drug works for 24 hours, you can truthfully say that the full effects will not be appreciated until that period of time has been reached. So the makers of Zantac actually took an advantage of Prevacid and inaccurately portrayed it as a disadvantage!

So what can the average person do to find out the truth behind drug ads? First, be skeptical about any claims you hear on TV. Second, if you have a question about what medicine to take, ask your pharmacist or doctor which one is best for you.

For more by Howard J. Bennett, M.D., click here.

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