Television viewers are inundated with alarming commercials telling them that prescription drugs and medical devices are dangerous and may result in serious injuries or death. When the public seeks information about a medical condition or treatment option on the internet, websites and videos with similarly frightening assertions are often the first search results. These ads are not public service announcements, though they are sometimes presented as such. Rather, law firms and marketing companies that specialize in generating as many lawsuits as possible, as quickly as possible, sponsor these ads.
This paper documents the dramatic increase in these types of ads and identifies the common deceptive practices they employ. It then explores the mounting evidence that the misleading information and exaggerated claims made in these ads discourage people from seeking treatment and lead patients to stop taking a prescribed medication without consulting a doctor, sometimes with tragic results.
- According to the FDA, doctors have submitted 61 reports of patients stopping their prescribed anticoagulant after viewing a lawsuit ad, resulting in six deaths and a wide range of other adverse events, the most frequent of which was a stroke.
- Psychologists have reported that patients stopped taking medications to treat mental health conditions after viewing a lawsuit ad, resulting in relapses, hospitalizations, and suicide attempts.
- CDC-affiliated researchers have found that videos on YouTube, most of which were lawsuit ads, convey scientifically unsupported claims about the risk of taking anti-depressants and other drugs during pregnancy.
- A team of experts in female pelvic health found that women who seek treatment often inaccurately believe that mesh devices have been recalled, due to lawsuit ads.
- A recent survey of patients confirms that lawsuit ads scare people away from medications treating conditions ranging from diabetes to depression.
- Doctors have shared first-hand accounts of how misleading lawsuit ads have harmed their patients and hindered their ability to provide medical care.
Despite concern expressed by healthcare professionals, patients, and the American Medical Association that misleading lawsuit advertising is harming the public, there is virtually no oversight. While protecting the public from misleading lawsuit ads targeting prescription drugs or medical devices is consistent with the First Amendment and how other products and services are treated, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), FDA, and state bars have each taken a hands-off approach.
The report concludes with specific steps that Congress, federal agencies, and states can take to respond to the public health threat posed by misleading lawsuit advertising practices.