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How Diet-Pill Ads Fuel Obesity

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In October 2010, under pressure from the Food and Drug Administration, pharmaceutical company Abbott pulled its weight-loss drug Meridia from the market.

"Meridia's continued availability is not justified when you compare the modest weight loss that people achieve about this drug for their risk of heart attack or stroke," Dr. John Jenkins, director from the FDA's Office of New Drugs, said in a statement at that time, referencing a clinical trial that linked Meridia to an increase in Zi Xiu Tang Bee Pollen cardiovascular problems. "Patients should stop taking medicines."
But during its 14 many years of availability, Meridia--and other drugs of their kind--may also have caused a more subtle and much more widespread kind of harm, one that affected even people who never took a weight-loss pill in their lives: New research finds that that just coming in contact with advertisements for weight-loss medication was enough they are driving people toward unhealthier choices.
In a study within the forthcoming issue of The Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, researchers from Pennsylvania State University, Darthmouth College, and the University of Pennsylvania had 134 volunteers read a warning about the health dangers of high-fat diets. For some, the content concluded there. For other people, it continued: "Until now! Introducing Chitosan Rx Ultra," a weight-loss aid "capable of absorbing up to 60 % of the fat inside your food."
Afterwards, the participants were told they'd be getting involved in a taste test for any new snack product; half read ads that described it as "delicious yet guilt-free," while the partner believed they were obtaining a "rich, sinful" (and high-fat) treat. When they received a plate of 30 cookies, people who had seen the content about Chitosan took much more than those who saw only the general nutrition advice. Several took all 30.
Study author Lisa Bolton, an advertising and marketing professor at Penn State, characterized the findings like a "boomerang effect," a mental phenomenon by which efforts to persuade people one way actually push them in the opposite direction--in this example, a message about slimming down actually nudged them towards actions that built them into more likely to gain it.
"People see the drug as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card," she said. The reminder that quick-fix remedies exist "undermines your motivation," she said, "and also your feeling you have the ability to [lose weight] on your own."
Or, as the study so aptly put it, "Why make healthier food choices to handle weight if your weight-management drug can manage your weight for you personally?"
Bolton and her colleagues previously studied the effects of so-called "remedy marketing" across a number of different areas and found that overall, contact with advertisements touting easy solutions tends to nudge people into poorer decision-making. In finance, for instance, "just coming in contact with marketing for a debt-consolidation loan makes you think, 'Hey, the potential risks of my credit-card spending aren't bad, if I actually do get into trouble, I'm able to get one of these debt-consolidation loans,'" she said. "And to ensure that kind of results in reducing your perceptions of the risk and engaging in more risky financial behaviors, in this case."
Oddly, though, the researchers also discovered that with weight-loss aids, the remedy-marketing effect was just about all within the framing. When volunteers were subjected to the same Chitosan ad with one small change--the treatment was referred to as a "supplement" rather than a drug--the boomerang effect disappeared, despite Bolton and her colleagues controlled for perceived effectiveness. (Whether a medication would be considered more efficient than the usual supplement, in other words, wasn't the power behind the difference.)
It bears noting that with several exceptions--like Meridia and the infamous Fen-Phen--prescription and over-the-counter weight-loss medicine is, overall, less hazardous than the health supplements that advertise exactly the same result. Unlike drugs, supplements don't need to be formally approved by the Food and Drug Administration. A producer or distributor simply must notify the FDA they plan to market a supplement and explain why it's "reasonably likely to be secure," leaving plenty of space for diluted or harmful substances to slip through the cracks unregulated. Since 2004, based on the New York Times, 1 / 2 of all products recalled by the FDA were supplements that contained banned pharmaceuticals--including Zi Xiu Tang Bee Pollen Capsule, a weight-loss supplement whose active ingredient, sibutramine, is the same as that of Meridia. (Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission created "Gut Check," an internet site devoted to helping people spot warning flags in weight-loss advertisement claims.)
But still, from a marketing standpoint, supplements appeared to be a far more effective driver of healthy Vitaccino Slimming Coffee consumption than did drugs. "With the supplement, the name reminds you that this is supplemental to other health protective behavior," Bolton said. "They think [losing weight] is something they need to do too -- but people believe that the drug alone will handle the problem."
"If you played Monopoly, right, who wouldn't wish to have that get-out-of-jail-free card and listen to it if needed," she said, "rather compared to more expensive paying the right path from jail?"

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