Cite this article

NIDA. (2011, October 18). Prescription Drugs on TV. Retrieved from

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Sara Bellum
October 18 2011
Picture of pills pouring out on a TV screen

You’ve probably seen television commercials advertising prescription drugs for any number of things—from fibromyalgia (fi-bro-my-al-ja) to depression. Usually these ads end with an announcer running through a long list of dangerous side effects and warnings so fast that viewers can’t possibly get all of them, even when they include death.

"Sometimes Fatal Events"

Did you know that the United States and New Zealand are the only countries in the world that allow prescription drug companies to market medications directly to the public?

Some drug companies even use celebrity spokespersons, such as pro golfer Phil Mickelson, who appears in a commercial promoting a drug for arthritis. The ad shows a vibrant green golf course on a sunny day while the background voice states that “sometimes fatal events” could occur in people who use the drug. Those include infections, tuberculosis, lymphoma and other cancers, and blood disorders. But the voice listing these effects seems more like an afterthought.

Risk of Addiction

Some prescription drugs marketed on TV carry the risk of addiction if they are abused. For example, Ambien is a central nervous system depressant prescribed for sleep disorders and could lead to addiction if not used as prescribed.

An Ambien TV commercial appeals to the viewer through humor—a rooster in the bedroom—and also through the promise of a good night’s sleep. However, the side effects listed at the end of the commercial are cause for concern—abnormal behaviors like being more outgoing or aggressive, confused, agitated, and even experiencing hallucinations. Ambien might also worsen depression and increase suicide risk.

Stay Alert to Marketing Gimmicks

In a previous blog, we talked about truth in advertising with alcohol commercials during the 2011 Super Bowl. The purpose of commercials for any product—alcohol, candy, cleaning supplies, or medications—is to sell that product.

The Food and Drug Administration oversees advertising that drug companies put on TV, but it doesn’t control how viewers react to the ads. A survey of 500 physicians reported that 78 percent of physicians believe their patients understand the possible benefits of the drugs they saw in a commercial, but only 40 percent believe their patients understand the possible risks. About 75 percent of physicians surveyed believe that commercials for medications make people think the drug works better than it does.

So, when you watch TV, see if you recognize shows and commercials about prescription drug misuse and think about whether or not what you’re seeing is accurate.