Why You Should Pay Attention To Drug And Product Warning Labels

Warning labels on drugs and other products are often mocked for the extreme caution they recommend and for their obviousness. In fact, there’s a whole host of websites dedicated to mocking warning labels, including the website “Dumb Warning Labels.” (My favorite: “Warning: Product will be hot after heating.”)
One warning that I’ve heard mocked quite a few times is the warning you hear at the end of certain prescription drug commercials that a side effect of the drug may be an increased risk of problem gambling. Ads for the drugs Mirapex and Requip (a medication for restless leg syndrome and Parkinson’s) carry this warning, as seen here:

The ad, and its litany of warnings, probably seems silly, just another vestige of an overly litigious society. People may watch and doubt whether there’s any sort of connection between the drug and gambling and suspect this warning is premised entirely upon some scientist’s conjecture that such drugs may cause such behavior.
But, as I was reminded this week, while reading “How We Decide,” a book on neuroscience, drug and product warning labels are there for our own benefit. Drugs like Requip are called “dopamine agonists” – they activate dopamine receptors in your brain even when your dopamine levels are low.
For many people these drugs are a miracle. For example, Parkinson’s disease is a disorder of the dopamine system that involves the irreversible death of dopamine neurons in the part of the brain that controls bodily movement. A Parkinson’s patient taking a dopamine agonist can see dramatic improvement in his control of his bodily movement because the agonist gets more horsepower out of the few surviving dopamine neurons.
One side effect of this is that the patient’s amped-up dopamine neurons make him more attracted to the “dopamine highs” he gets from gambling. Lehrer, the Rhodes Scholar author of “How We Decide,” tells the story of Ann Klinestiver, a fifty-one year old English teacher who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and prescribed Requip. Klinestiver, who had never previously gambled, and who had religious objections to gambling, suddenly became a problem gambler. After a year of playing slot machines, Ann had lost more than $250,000 – wiping out her retirement savings.
Klinstiver’s story is not unique. As Lehrer informs us, medical research suggests that as many of 13 percent of patients taking dopamine agonists develop severe gambling compulsions.
So the next time you come across a product warning label or a prescription drug label reciting a litany of possible side effects, ones that seem like a barrage of nonsense, take heed. The labels may actually be there for your benefit.