Pharma Wants You To Be Sick – and Celebrities Help

Do you have gas, bloating and frequent diarrhea? Pharma hopes so. If you have the rare digestive/intestinal condition exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) – mostly limited to those with chronic pancreatitis, cystic fibrosis and diabetes – AbbVie can sell you its expensive drug Creon. Pharma wants you to be sick.

A high budget ad campaign warns that whoever you are, even if you have only one EPI symptom, you should see your doctor. (Overuse of medical resources be damned!) “You have to break it down for your doctor and get specific about the severity of your symptoms,” says AbbVie – perhaps expel gas during your appointment to make your point. If the doc does not prescribe Creon our ad dollars were wasted, implies AbbVie.

The tactic of “disease awareness,” convincing people they are sick or “at risk,” is why millions now take statins, GERD meds and antidepressants – drugs that are often more dangerous than the condition they allegedly treat.

In addition to enlarging sales and squeezing doctors into prescribing their drugs, Pharma loves disease advertising because it often omits the drug name and therefore the list of obligatory drug side effects that must accompany an ad – brain bleeds, seizures, thoughts of suicide – that can “unsell” a drug.

Celebrities Help Disease Awareness

It should surprise no one how often Pharma uses celebrity endorsements to sell drugs and raise “disease awareness.” When direct-to-consumer advertising began, television personality Joan Lunden and baseball player Mike Piazza pushed the allergy pill Claritin and Dorothy Hamill and track star, the former Bruce Jenner, pushed the pain pill Vioxx, which caused 27,785 heart attacks and sudden cardiac deaths.

Body Heat star actress Kathleen Turner shared her battle with rheumatoid arthritis on CNN, not mentioning that a drug company who made arthritis drugs was funding her. Nor did TV talk show host Meredith Vieira mention any Merck subsidies when she hawked bone drugs for osteoporosis.

Sally Field, known as the family matriarch in the TV drama Brothers and Sisters, was the face of the bone disease awareness risks for women for several years, not afraid to name the drug Boniva. (Since Vieira and Field raised awareness about bone thinning, the class of drugs they promoted, bisphosphonates, has been linked to cancer, relentless pain, heart problems, jaw necrosis and the very fractures they were supposed to prevent. Thanks, Ladies.)

More recently, tennis star Monica Seles raised awareness for “binge eating disorder,” actress, Marcia Cross hawked awareness of migraine headaches and race car driver Danica Patrick pushed awareness of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Singer LeAnn Rimes pushed awareness of eczema, Paula Deen awareness of diabetes, and Adam Levine, the lead singer of Maroon 5, sold ADHD in a campaign called “It’s Your ADHD. Own It.”

Pharma Fears Public Opinion

It is not just progressives who oppose Pharma’s opportunism and extortion pricing; in the United States, Republicans lawmakers are also shocked at the industry impunity and shamelessness. No wonder widely hated Pharma so fears grassroots comments and feedback on the Internet – which it can’t buy off with its lucrative, frequent ads like it does television and TV news shows.

“Adverse event reporting has been a concern for pharma since the advent of social media,” admits an article on Medical Marketing and Media addressing how Pharma faces serious “public distrust” on social media.

Another Pharma marketer agrees, cautioning not to let bad patient buzz overshadow “the work you’ve done online … The vocal minority now becomes the published majority, and that becomes the experience that everyone attaches themselves to Putting your head in the sand and ignoring these people is the wrong way to think about how people are experiencing your brand or your content.”

To counter grassroots testimonials about drugs, Pharma hires “patients” – as it does celebrities – who will serve as Pharma shills, rhapsodizing about the drug’s benefits for money. I have met such patients at FDA hearings who readily admit Pharma paid their expenses so they would praise the drug in approval or expanded indication (use) hearings.

What Can You Do?

One of the best sites to get non “pharma-washed” information about a drug is, a Webby award-winning patient-driven site that lets you read thousands of entries about an individual drug from actual users. The number of side effects agreed upon by scores of users but found nowhere on the prescribing information is amazing. (No wonder patients can ending up knowing more about a drug and its side effects than prescribers.)

One of the most trusted sources for unbiased drug information is the People’s Pharmacy, run for decades by Joe and Terry Graedon. Often you willl learn about inexpensive, even household treatments for health conditions that Pharma isn’t eager for you to know.

Finally, Worst Pills, published by the well-respected Public Citizen, is the granddaddy of drug information sites that are free from Pharma influence. For a very small subscription fee, patients can learn crucial information about the drugs they have been prescribed and make their own informed decisions.

There are two things to remember when confronted with drug advertising that sells diseases: you probably don’t have the condition advertised and if you do, the drug marketed for it has a high price tag and likely many buried risks.

Martha Rosenberg
Martha Rosenberg is the Investigative Health Correspondent for NewsBlaze. Martha illustrates many of her stories with relevant cartoons. She was staff cartoonist at Evanston Roundtable.