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The importance of including risk information in ads for over-the-counter medications

Findings published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association show that when prescription medications become available over-the-counter, advertisements for the products are less likely to alert consumers to potential risks or side effects.

In the study (subscription required), Brigham and Women's Hospital researcher Jeremy Greene, MD, PhD, and colleagues examined print and broadcast advertisements for four commonly used medications that were marketed to consumers as prescription drugs and later approved for over-the-counter sale. The advertisements ran for 24 months before and six months after the switch to over-the-counter. The researchers found that when drugs required a prescription, 70 percent of the advertisements mentioned potential risks and side effects. However, once drugs were available without a doctor's signature, this figure dropped to 11 percent.

Greene discusses the findings in a Q&A on news@JAMA. He had the following to say about why risk information in advertisements is necessary for patients and how he hopes this study will be useful to physicians:

When the average consumer thinks about an OTC drug, they think this drug has to be safe or it wouldn't be available without a prescription. But as any pharmacologist knows, there is no such thing as a safe drug. Our most potent cures can be poison if used improperly, and that is just as true for OTC drugs.


It is increasingly important to know all of the substances a patient is taking. We understand that the total amount of acetaminophen consumed can shift it from a safe medication to one of the leading causes of emergency department visits and liver failure. It's important for us to know the landscape of promotion and how it influences consumers' perceptions of medication risks.

Previously: Report shows over 60 percent of Americans don't follow doctors' orders in taking prescription meds and One label fits all? A universal schedule for prescription drugs
Photo by PinkMoose

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