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Reality Check: Why are prescription drug commercials allowed in U.S.?

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (WLOS) - The television airwaves are filled with commercials for prescription drugs. So why do we have so many even though you need a doctor to get the drugs?

It's something that's bothered a local man who had some foreign visitors who couldn't believe the commercials were even allowed, because they're illegal in most countries. Garrison Stephens sent his question to News 13 and wanted to know "why are companies allowed to air prescription medication commercials in the United States?"

Here's a sample of of some of the commercials: Actress Kelly King says, "Curling up with your favorite book is nice. But I think women would prefer curling up with their favorite man." That's an ad for the prescription drug Viagra.

Here's another for Xeralto, a medication to prevent strokes. Comedian Kevin Nealon says, "I took Xeralto for Afib, an irregular heart beat that can lead to a stroke."

Stephens questions why these ads are mainstream.

"It's not like you can go out and buy these prescription medicines on your own, so I'm just wondering why are they allowed on TV?" Stephens says he started thinking about it after two exchange students visiting his home were shocked by all the prescription drug commercials.

"And they mentioned that those commercials are illegal in their countries, the two countries being Germany and Taiwan," Stephens said.

In fact, these commercials that allow product claims are banned in every country except the United States and New Zealand.

"It's a relatively new phenomenon," according to Dr. Joel Farley, a professor of pharmacy at UNC Chapel Hill.

He says it began in 1997 after the FDA changed the rules. Farley says there are arguments for and against direct-to-consumer drug ads. Opponents say they misinform patients, overemphasize the benefits and promote drugs before they're fully known to be safe. Supporters say the ads inform, educate and empower patients, encourage patient contact with a clinician and reduce stigmas associated with certain diseases. Farley says the FDA rules aim at keeping the ads fair.

"So the guidance basically specifies that you need to present a fair balance of information about the benefits as well as the risk of using the medication," Farley said.

But some people still question their benefit.

"The symptoms on these drugs that they have to list on television are just outlandish," Stephens said.

Despite the healthy debate over direct-to-consumer drug ads, some viewers still aren't buying it.

"And it doesn't really make sense because wouldn't the doctor know better what's best for you anyways."

Farley says all of these ads are for new drugs that are brand names that don't have generics. He says once generics are released, the companies lose the opportunity to market their product and recover their research costs. Which is why we see so many of them.

If you have a story you'd like us to investigate, write us at RealityCheck@wlos.com.

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