Study: Public misled by depression ads

Nov. 10, 2005 at 1:57 PM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 10 (UPI) -- The most commonly prescribed anti-depressants may be effective, but drug ads are misleading about how the drugs work, a new study suggests.

The study, published in the December issue of the Public Library of Science Medicine, focuses on manufacturers that market the cutting-edge class of anti-depressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.

The study results add to the criticism of drug companies for allegedly filling the airwaves with slick but deceptive advertising on various medications.

SSRIs can help relieve depression, but the medical evidence that they do so by correcting low levels of serotonin in the brain is weak, and therefore should be eliminated from direct-to-consumer ads in magazines and on television, the study's authors said.

The authors were Jonathan Leo, a professor of neuroanatomy at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in Bradenton, Fla., and Jeffrey R. Lacasse, a Ph.D. candidate at Florida State University's College of Social Work.

The duo attacked the widespread use of the "serotonin theory of depression" in their accompanying text, saying clinical evidence does not adequately support the statement that serotonin imbalances in the brain are responsible for clinical depression.

"Depression and anxiety are complicated issues that cannot be explained in a 30-second commercial," the authors wrote. "When the serotonin theory is portrayed with clever visual portrayals that do not accurately represent the neuroscience research, consumers are led to believe that medication is necessary for the treatment for depression."

Leo added that, contrary to the message in the ads, the prescribing information on the drug labels do not say that SSRIs correct serotonin imbalances.

Leo and Lacasse called on the Food and Drug Administration to exercise more authority about what goes into direct-to-consumer advertising to make sure it is fair and balanced and urged people to become more active in their own care.

"In terms of real-life effects of this advertising, we are concerned that this oversimplified theory has become the intellectual justification for 10-minute office visits which result in the prescription of antidepressants for a variety of ill-defined conditions," Lacasse concluded. "In general, people need to be more skeptical regarding claims of chemical imbalance as explanation for psychological distress."

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