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WASHINGTON - Television drug advertisements rely heavily on emotional appeals rather than comprehensive disease information to attract consumers’ attention, according to one of the first studies to analyze such commercials.

The study, published in the Annals of Family Medicine Monday, investigated dozens of TV drug ads for some of the nation’s top-selling drugs at those times when most viewers tune in.

Researchers analyzed the ads based on how they portrayed the medication and disease, emotions and lifestyles changes. They found companies used various tactics to appeal to viewers with limited facts that could oversimplify their decisions.

“The benefits of prescription drugs are rarely that black and white,” lead author Dominick Frosch, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of California in Los Angeles, told Reuters.

“Choosing the wrong prescription drug can cause serious health problems and it can also be very costly to the larger society,” he added.

While such strategies are frequently used for other consumer products, they raise questions when it comes to pharmaceuticals, Frosch and other researchers wrote.

“Our findings suggest the need to reconsider the distinction between selling soap or other consumer products and selling prescription drugs,” they said.

In their review, researchers analyzed 38 commercials that aired over the course of four weeks of prime-time television in mid-2004. They coded ads for common themes such as humor or product information, then rated how often each was used.

While all the ads met regulations, they often made vague claims, the researchers said. About one-quarter offered details on the cause of a disease or who was at risk.

They also found that nearly all ads relied on characters who seemed happy after taking a drug or otherwise showed positive emotions. Some mentioned changing habits in addition to medication, but none offered such change as an alternative.

Print drug ads have been analyzed before, but this study is one of the first aimed at televised versions and comes as Congress prepares to consider allowing drugmakers to pay U.S. regulators to have their commercials screened before airing.

Prescription drug ads have raised concerns since the Food and Drug Administration loosened restrictions on them in 1997.

Since then critics have charged both TV and print ads are misleading and encourage consumers to seek drugs they don’t need. Companies and other supporters have said they can educate consumers about possible treatments.

Industry lobbying group the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) released voluntary guidelines in 2005 to address the concerns, but some say they fall short.

PhRMA criticized the study for using ads that aired before its guidelines were implemented. Early indications show “that advertisements airing since the Principles took effect have tended to be more educational and informative,” said the group’s senior vice president, Ken Johnson.

Still, Frosch said the guidelines don’t offer specifics and avoid the issue of emotional appeals. “I don’t think prescription drug advertising needs to be banned, but it does need to be more responsible,” he told Reuters.

This spring Frosch will launch a related study on consumers’ reaction to TV drug ads, with results expected next year.

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