The drug commercials that interrupt your favorite TV shows feature good-looking people who are confident, physically active and surrounded by loving friends and family. Who knew that prescription drugs could be so much fun?

What the commercials don’t deliver is real education about the conditions that are being treated…the risks for side effects…or the importance of a healthy lifestyle. Sure, there’s a rapid-fire list of possible side effects that typically appears in the middle of the commercial—but, arguably, few people can decipher (or remember) much of that.

In 2015, the American Medical Association called for a ban on direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA). The US is one of only two industrialized nations that permit the advertisement of prescription drugs. The other is New Zealand, which overall sees significantly less of this type of advertising, positioning the US as the powerhouse in DTCA. No ban has been issued in the US, and TV drug advertising continues.

An alarming trend: Television drug commercials in 2016 were 30% longer than they were in 2004, according to research led by the University of South Florida. Meanwhile, discussions of risk factors dropped from 26% to 16%. While research has not yet investigated how these longer ads might impact consumer habits, it is an important area for future analysis.

Advertising “often glamorizes the experience of obtaining a prescription,” explains Janelle Applequist, PhD, lead author of the study, which was published in the May/June 2018 issue of Annals of Family Medicine. The rosy portrayal of drug benefits is designed to encourage patients to ask their doctors for particular drugs. In some cases, this could be a drug the consumer doesn’t even really need. Here’s Dr. Applequist’s advice to avoid getting duped

Step #1: View TV commercials with healthy skepticism. Always keep in mind that the advertising industry, in general, is incredibly effective at tapping into our desires and emotions. This doesn’t mean that you should avoid watching the ads altogether. Viewing such ads for new prescription drugs can help destigmatize serious health issues, such as hepatitis C and erectile dysfunction. But remember that these ads are only a “first step” in obtaining important information.

Step #2: Do your own research. Rather than taking advertising claims at face value, you’ll get more objective information by doing your own research into the uses for—and the risks of—particular drugs. Be sure, however, to consult reliable resources, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Drug Information Portal.

Step #3: Be a “critical” consumer. Ask yourself—and discuss with your doctor—whether a certain medication is really the best choice for your condition.

Example: A drug that’s approved by the FDA for treating depression might not be the best choice for someone with insomnia. The distinction is often blurred in TV commercials.

Having a conversation with your health-care provider is the best way to determine what’s most appropriate for you given your current health status and other medications you may be taking.

Also important: Don’t underestimate the importance of a healthy lifestyle. Diet, exercise and emotional health can often promote a level of wellness that drugs can’t. This is a point that pharmaceutical companies aren’t eager to highlight!

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