Advertising prescription drugs is a form of disease-mongering that encourages healthy people to believe they are in need of medical attention, a Canadian researcher says.

Barbara Mintzes, a researcher at the Centre for Health Services and Policy Research at the University of British Columbia, says that Americans see, on average, nine such ads a day on television.

"To an unprecedented degree, they portrayed the educational message of a pill for every ill -- and increasingly an ill for every pill," she writes in a provocative piece published in today's edition of the British Medical Journal.

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Direct-to-consumer drug advertising of the kind seen on U.S. television networks is not allowed in Canada, although drug makers and media groups are pushing to have that ban dropped.

Ms. Mintzes said that drug advertising campaigns are "medicalizing normal human experience." The most striking example is Propecia, a drug that treats hair loss.

During a year-long ad campaign in the U.S., physician visits for baldness hit 850,000, up a whopping 79 per cent from the previous year, proof that advertising shifts health-care usage patterns.

"By no stretch could you call baldness a disease, but these ads are designed to convince men they need a prescription drug," she said.

In a counterargument published in the same edition of the BMJ, Silvia Bonaccorso, vice-president of marketing at pharmaceutical giant Merck, said drug advertising actually makes populations healthier.

He said a number of major diseases for which there are effective treatments are underdiagnosed and undertreated, and the ads get consumers to their physicians for help.

Dr. Bonaccorso said that severely restricting advertising -- as Canada and Europe do but the U.S.does not -- impinges on the rights of consumers to have all the information they need to make informed health-care choices. He said it is unjust that companies are restricted in what they say but all kinds of organizations are free to disseminate information, even if it is of dubious quality.

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The entire edition of this week's British Medical Journal is dedicated to the question: "Do we have too much medicine?"

Besides the commentaries on drug advertising, there are pieces on the medicalization of sex and the impact of genetic testing on healthy individuals.

Graham Hart, a professor of social and public health sciences at Glasgow University in Scotland, said that the medicalization of sex is doing a disservice to patients because physicians are ignoring the social and interpersonal dynamics of relationships that are important to healthy sexual relationships.

He said sildenafil citrate, better known as Viagra, a drug used to treat erectile dysfunction, has become the world's biggest-selling drug, but it may be creating as many problems as it resolves.

Dr. Hart said that in the U.S., half of men aged 40 to 70 and 70 per cent of men over 70 are considered to be suffering from erectile dysfunction. He speculates that may reflect people's expectations in the escalating sexualization of culture.