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How Restless Is <i>Your</i> Leg?

We missed this when it first happened, but there's an interesting little controversy involving the NBC "Nightly News" that we thought you should know about. As Gary Schwitzer notes, the "Nightly News" did a story on restless leg syndrome, a condition that most of us had never heard about until drug company GlaxoSmithKline started publicizing it. GlaxoSmithKline offers a medication to treat restless leg syndrome, and the company advertises it on the "Nightly News."

The "Nightly News" story focused, in large part, on the fact that this is a condition that you probably didn't know you had until you were told it existed and offered the cure. But the story went on to quote a doctor saying this: "I'm not generally a big fan of direct-to-consumer TV ads. However, for this particular disorder, I think they've done a great service by spending most of the time identifying the problem." Also quoted was a patient who spoke approvingly of the drug.

As Schwitzer points out, the segment prompted an outcry from some viewers, who posted their complaints to Williams' blog. "I thought NBC was trying to cut commercials so we get more news. Does this intergraded ad then count as news or advertising," asked one. Another wrote that "I read all the comments on [restless leg syndrome] and it seemed to me the majority of writers were upset (as was I) about the blatant commercial you ran for an advertiser." (There were also supportive comments from viewers who say they have the condition.)

Schwitzer points to an article called "Giving Legs to Restless Legs: A Case Study of How the Media Helps Make People Sick." The story discusses "disease mongering," described as "the effort by pharmaceutical companies (or others with similar financial interests) to enlarge the market for a treatment by convincing people that they are sick and need medical intervention."

Concludes the article: "The news coverage of restless legs syndrome is disturbing. It exaggerated the prevalence of disease and the need for treatment, and failed to consider the problems of overdiagnosis. In essence, the media seemed to have been co-opted into the disease-mongering process." In 2002, the "Early Show" ran a segment offering tips for those who might have the condition.

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