drug5What are your children watching on television and online? Mindful parents know children cannot easily escape advertisements for pills, tablets, potions, creams, and lotions. The once safe zone of the evening news is punctuated with blurbs about four-hour erections, effects of low testosterone and incontinence products.

Even worse, an unsupervised child can access a plethora of remedies online via YouTube and sites that promise magical cures and solutions. Confusing and tempting, these promises may involve or encourage not only improper use of drugs, but inappropriate and dangerous uses for the curious or the addicted.

How did consumers arrive at this brave new world?

Television advertisements have long been regulated by the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission. On April 1, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed into law a ban of all cigarette advertising on television. Liquor advertisers accepted a voluntary ban on television for more than 50 years, and changed direction in 1996. While ads today do not show people imbibing, for nearly 20 years, television has featured sophisticated endorsements of everything from foreign beers to flavored vodka in enticing settings.

While liquor commercials may offend some parents watching with young children, the greatest danger may lie in commercials and online advertisements about prescription and over-the-counter drugs. The history of pharmaceutical advertising on television only dates back several decades, after the Food and Drug Administration decided “direct-to-consumer” ads were appropriate for television. Today, they are regulated with strict guidelines, and all viewers understand the tagline, “Ask your doctor if it is right for you.”

Business Insider reported considerable growth in the Internet advertising sector’s first 14 years that significantly exceeded the growth in television advertising. American children are engaged in both television and Internet advertising. Of course, most parents agree not all of it is appropriate. The journal Pediatrics reported children watch more than 40,000 ads per year on television, with increasing exposure to more ads on the Internet. The journal suggests this high amount of exposure may contribute materially to obesity, poor nutrition, and tobacco and alcohol use among children and teens.

What is the U.S. government doing?

While some European countries ban all advertising directed at children under 12, American advertising, driven by free markets, targets everyone from tots to seniors. However, the United States, as one of the few countries that allows direct-to-consumer advertising for pharmaceutical products, regulates what is on the public airwaves through the Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising, and Communications (DDMAC).

The directive outlines that broadcast ads must include risk information, as well as the FDA-approved labeling (package insert) information. The FDA also provides an informative website for consumers who seek information online, Be Smart about Prescription Drug Advertising, A Guide for Consumers.

These directives are enforced. NPR reported in July 2013 that the FDA cracked down on more than a dozen companies that marketed illegal diabetes treatments. One of the illegal products tagged in this crack down contained metformin, which is the most commonly prescribed diabetes drug in the United States. Unbelievably, the product promotion stated it was a traditional Indian herbal formula.

Several years ago, Internet giant Google forfeited $500 million in profits from illegal online ads and prescription drugs sales. The Justice Department documentation said the search engine company allowed online Canadian pharmacies to place unlawful ads, both for controlled and non-controlled prescription drugs into the United States. The Justice Department noted that Google had been aware of this practice six years prior to this announcement.

How to Avoid the Dangers

The purchase of controlled substances is perhaps the most dangerous, because a controlled substance is one that can cause addiction through abuse. Though the government monitors both television and online advertising, what can parents do to ensure children’s safety?

  • Use parental controls both on the television and the computer. For example, the parental controls on your DIRECTV, as with multiple satellite and cable companies, allows parents to restrict programming by ratings or channels.
  • Keep the computer your children use in a common area, such as the kitchen or family room, where adults are also available.
  • Talk to your children about what they are watching. While you can place guidelines upon them, you cannot watch them every moment. Start open-ended discussions that begin with, “Tell me how you feel about this…”
  • Use the FDA resources listed above, and if something truly bothers you, complain to the powers that be at the cable company, Internet provider or the FDA, or simply unsubscribe. One beauty of the free market system is the consumer still does have a voice, and a larger one with her wallet.

What tips do you have for keeping kids safe from bad online drugs?

Takeaway tips for parents:

• Digital Citizens Alliance offers more valuable information about online cyber-crimes and fake online pharmacies.
• Communication is key to prevention, keeping an open dialog with your teen is crucial.
• Pass this information on to a friend and another parent. Awareness is part of resolution.