Why You Should Be Wary of Prescription Drug Ads on TV

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In 1997, the Food and Drug Administration permitted prescription drug companies to start publicizing their products directly to consumers in television advertisements. Compelled by the persuasive spots, patients petitioned their physicians for drugs to alleviate mood disorders, cardiovascular issues, and various other chronic conditions. But two studies released this year both came to a sobering conclusion about this direct-to-consumer approach: While advertising is persuasive by nature, drug spots may actually be misleading.

In a report published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, researchers at Yale University looked at 97 drug ads that aired on television in 2015 and the first half of 2016. Most were targeted to people with arthritis, diabetes, and other ailments that require continuous care. None of them offered objective information about the potential risks of the drugs; the focus was instead on relative improvement in quality of life. In 13 percent of the ads, the drug companies suggested that various diabetes medications could be used off-label to reduce weight or lower blood pressure, a violation of FDA policy.

The spots also emphasized positive results of clinical trials. These efficacy statements dominated the narrative, with statements like “most people using [the drug] saw 75 percent clearer skin,” or “my doctor said [the drug] helps my bones get stronger.” The Yale study concluded that these and similar claims were potentially misleading and difficult to analyze objectively.

Another recent study published in the Annals of Family Medicine [PDF] examined the abundance of lifestyle depictions in the spots. Rather than dwell on risk factors, the 61 ads that researchers analyzed were predominantly made up of footage that made a direct connection between using the drug and an improved quality of life. Many of the ads were addressing conditions (like diabetes and depression) that might benefit from therapies other than medication. Roughly 59 percent of ads depicted a person losing control of their life as a result of their condition, while almost 69 percent suggested the advertised drugs enabled a more active and healthy lifestyle.

The FDA is responsible for making sure companies don't mislead consumers, but critics charge that the agency is not doing its part. It doesn't review prescription drug ads in advance, nor does it restrict ad spending. “Everyone on the ads appears healthy, happy, dancing, and they get better,” internist Andy Lazris, M.D. told Health News Review. “So people are led to believe a) the drug will be effective (which is often not the case), and b) that they should replace their old therapy with the newer one because it’s better (again, which is often not the case)."

“And if they give you any numbers at all, they’re almost always the deceptive relative numbers that look really good, not the more realistic absolute numbers," Lazris added. "So the benefits are over-exaggerated, the harms are downplayed or missed, and that’s how patients can get hurt.”

Because the spots are so short—usually 30 to 60 seconds—it’s difficult to communicate the risk-to-benefit ratio clearly. Even when ads go into a laundry list of side effects, it can become white noise compared to the happy, smiling faces appearing onscreen. (Soon, the FDA might even allow companies to shorten that list, based on its own study that found fewer mentioned side effects allow consumers to retain more information about the drug’s risks.)

The one part of the spots most critics agree is accurate? When they urge viewers to talk to their doctor. Weighing the risks and benefits of prescription medication outside of the fictional and persuasive images of drug spots is the only way to be sure a product is right for you.

[h/t Los Angeles Times]

12 Creative Ways to Spend Your FSA Money Before the Deadline

stockfour/iStock via Getty Images
stockfour/iStock via Getty Images

If you have a Flexible Spending Account (FSA), chances are, time is running out for you to use that cash. Depending on your employer’s rules, if you don’t spend your FSA money by the end of the grace period, you potentially lose some of it. Lost cash is never a good thing.

For those unfamiliar, an FSA is an employer-sponsored spending account. You deposit pre-tax dollars into the account, and you can spend that money on a number of health care expenses. It’s kind of like a Health Savings Account (HSA), but with a few big differences—namely, your HSA funds roll over from year to year, so there’s no deadline to spend it all. With an FSA, though, most of your funds expire at the end of the year. Bummer.

The good news is: The law allows employers to roll $500 over into the new year and also offer a grace period of up to two and a half months to use that cash (March 15). Depending on your employer, you might not even have that long, though. The deadline is fast approaching for many account holders, so if you have to use your FSA money soon, here are a handful of creative ways to spend it.

1. Buy some new shades.

Head to the optometrist, get an eye prescription, then use your FSA funds to buy some new specs or shades. Contact lenses and solution are also covered.

You can also buy reading glasses with your FSA money, and you don’t even need a prescription.

2. Try acupuncture.

Scientists are divided on the efficacy of acupuncture, but some studies show it’s useful for treating chronic pain, arthritis, and even depression. If you’ve been curious about the treatment, now's a good time to try it: Your FSA money will cover acupuncture sessions in some cases. You can even buy an acupressure mat without a prescription.

If you’d rather go to a chiropractor, your FSA funds cover those visits, too.

3. Stock up on staples.

If you’re running low on standard over-the-counter meds, good news: Most of them are FSA-eligible. This includes headache medicine, pain relievers, antacids, heartburn meds, and anything else your heart (or other parts of your body) desires.

There’s one big caveat, though: Most of these require a prescription in order to be eligible, so you may have to make an appointment with your doctor first. The FSA store tells you which over-the-counter items require a prescription.

4. Treat your feet.

Give your feet a break with a pair of massaging gel shoe inserts. They’re FSA-eligible, along with a few other foot care products, including arch braces, toe cushions, and callus trimmers.

In some cases, foot massagers or circulators may be covered, too. For example, here’s one that’s available via the FSA store, no prescription necessary.

5. Get clear skin.

Yep—acne treatments, toner, and other skin care products are all eligible for FSA spending. Again, most of these require a prescription for reimbursement, but don’t let that deter you. Your doctor is familiar with the rules and you shouldn’t have trouble getting a prescription. And, as WageWorks points out, your prescription also lasts for a year. Check the rules of your FSA plan to see if you need a separate prescription for each item, or if you can include multiple products or drug categories on a single prescription.

While we’re on the topic of faces, lip balm is another great way to spend your FSA funds—and you don’t need a prescription for that. There’s also no prescription necessary for this vibrating face massager.

6. Fill your medicine cabinet.

If your medicine cabinet is getting bare, or you don’t have one to begin with, stock it with a handful of FSA-eligible items. Here are some items that don’t require a prescription:

You can also stock up on first aid kits. You don’t need a prescription to buy those, and many of them come with pain relievers and other medicine.

7. Make sure you’re covered in the bedroom.

Condoms are FSA-eligible, and so are pregnancy tests, monitors, and fertility kits. Female contraceptives are also covered when you have a prescription.

8. Prepare for your upcoming vacation.

If you have a vacation planned this year, use your FSA money to stock up on trip essentials. For example:

9. Get a better night’s sleep.

If you have trouble sleeping, sleep aids are eligible, though you’ll need a prescription. If you want to try a sleep mask, many of them are eligible without a prescription. For example, there’s this relaxing sleep mask and this thermal eye mask.

For those nights you’re sleeping off a cold or flu, a vaporizer can make a big difference, and those are eligible, too (no prescription required). Bed warmers like this one are often covered, too.

Your FSA funds likely cover more than you realize, so if you have to use them up by the deadline, get creative. This list should help you get started, and many drugstores will tell you which items are FSA-eligible when you shop online.

10. Go to the dentist.

While basics like toothpaste and cosmetic procedures like whitening treatments aren’t FSA eligible, most of the expenses you incur at your dentist’s office are. That includes co-pays and deductibles as well as fees for cleanings, x-rays, fillings, and even the cost of braces. There are also some products you can buy over-the-counter without ever visiting the dentist. Some mouthguards that prevent you from grinding your teeth at night are eligible, as are cleaning solutions for retainers and dentures.

11. Try some new gadgets.

If you still have some extra cash to burn, it’s a great time to try some expensive high-tech devices that you’ve been curious about but might not otherwise want to splurge on. The list includes light therapy treatments for acne, vibrating nausea relief bands, electrical stimulation devices for chronic pain, cloud-connected stethoscopes, and smart thermometers.

12. Head to Amazon.

There are plenty of FSA-eligible items available on Amazon, including items for foot health, cold and allergy medication, eye care, and first-aid kits. Find out more details on how to spend your FSA money on Amazon here.

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Hate Brown Apple Slices? Use This Simple Trick to Keep Them Fresh

Jessica Lewis, Unsplash
Jessica Lewis, Unsplash

Though they're perfectly safe to eat, brown apple slices aren't the most appealing-looking snack. If you love sliced apples but can't stand that fading color, eating them faster isn't your only option. All you need is a bowl of water and a bit of salt to keep your apples looking and tasting fresh and crisp long after you cut into them.

This trick for keeping apple slices from browning comes from Reader's Digest. Before picking up your knife, prepare a bowl of cold water. Stir in roughly half a teaspoon of salt for every cup of water and set the bowl aside until your apple slices are ready. Soak the slices for 10 minutes, drain them, and rinse them off to get rid of any excess salt. You can eat your apples right away or store them in a plastic bag or container for later. Either way, they should keep their appetizing white color for longer than they would without the saltwater soak.

Discoloration on an apple slice doesn't mean it's gone bad. When the enzymes inside an apple are exposed to air, they produce benzoquinone and melanins in a process called oxidation. This chemical reaction is behind your apple's rapid browning. Salt inhibits these enzymes, which slow down the oxidation process.

The saltwater trick is great for keeping apples looking fresh, but it only works if they've been sliced. Here's a tip for stopping your whole apples from going bad after bringing them home from the grocery store (or picking them straight from the tree).

[h/t Reader's Digest]