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Advertisements for medicines can be ethically dubious and encourage people leading unhealthy lifestyles to believe a drug could be a "silver bullet'' for their ailments, new research suggests.
New Zealand is among the few countries to have a legal framework for "direct to customer advertising'' (DTCA) of pharmaceuticals.
Previous studies have shown advertising leads to patients requesting specific medicines, and that doctors will often prescribe them.
New research by University of Otago and University of Limerick, Ireland, scientists has now looked at who is requesting those advertised medicines.
"Individuals with less healthy lifestyles, that is less physical activity, higher levels of alcohol consumption, unhealthier nutritional habits and higher levels of illegal drug use, were more likely to respond to (advertisements),'' the research, published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, said.
"At risk or disadvantaged groups can be more susceptible towards DTCA and may not be able to make informed decisions.''
That finding raised issues over how ethical drug advertising was, especially as it was self-regulated in New Zealand, researchers said.
"Pharmaceutical companies should not target 'at risk' individuals, position their product based on individuals' lifestyle characteristics, and depict their product as a wonder drug.
"Instead, they need to make DTCA more ethical by explicitly and impartially stating that behavioural changes could be as effective as taking the advertised medicine.''
The research findings were based on a survey of 2057 New Zealanders.
Given previous studies had found at-risk individuals were more likely to have health issues and use medicines, scientists wanted to see if they were more at risk of being influenced by advertising.
"This association could be due to individuals with poorer lifestyle behaviours being more likely to have poorer health, and/or their desire to take a medicine rather than changing lifestyle behaviours.''
The findings were also a wake-up call for health professionals, who needed to play a role in educating and supporting people to change the way they lived rather than pop a pill to solve their problems, researchers said.
"This study also proposes that the government should focus on increasing individuals' health literacy, monitor advertising of lifestyle medicines, and ensure that DTCA is more beneficial than harmful, to help individuals make informed decisions.''