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How Drug Spam Hooks Patients

Laura Enderle, Associate Editor
Published Online: Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A new study reports that patients are more likely to seek information about a drug online after seeing a spam ad.
 

With subject lines like “Paradise of Viagra Price” and “Cheap Cialis Now,” spam emails pushing prescription drugs are easy for most patients to spot—and ignore.

However, new research shows that drug spammers’ marketing tactics—as transparent as they are—do influence behavior in subtle but significant ways. Patients who view spam ads are more likely to use the Internet to research prescription drugs, according to a report on the study published in the January 2012 issue of the International Journal of Business and Systems Research.

That means exposure to drug spam could put patients at risk for misinformation, depending on which sites they visit. It’s also likely to lead them to rogue online pharmacies. A recent study conducted by computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University found that 1 in 3 Google searches for drug names are rerouted, diverting users to illicit online pharmacies.

While the risks of searching the Web for health information and buying medications online are known, the new study, “Online information seeking for prescription drugs,” is one of the first to look at why patients do so in the first place, according to the authors. Its findings have implications for pharmacists, who, as medication experts, are often left to deal with the public’s misconceptions about prescription drugs.

Protecting patients from false marketing messages is the goal behind laws that limit claims pharmaceutical companies can make in ads targeting consumers. But unlike traditional direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA), spam ads are largely unregulated, says senior author and consumer behavior researcher Sanjoy Ghose, PhD, who is also a professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

In their report, Dr. Ghose and colleagues explained that although drug spam is rampant and the Web has become “a powerful media tool” for sharing information about medication, regulators have been slow to respond to the changing landscape of online communication. Results of experiments like theirs should drive policy going forward; however, for the time being, “national DTCA regulations have little control over communication through the Internet,” they wrote.

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