Drugs and deception
The drug industry is using deceptive practices to circumvent the law and sell you more drugs.
We’ve all seen the drug TV ads: a couple walking together on a peaceful beach, or playing with the family dog in a sunny meadow—and then we get to the appalling list of side effects that, understandably, turn off many consumers. Drug companies have to include the side effects by law; otherwise, consumers could be duped into buying drugs based on deceptive ads. But the pharmaceutical industry is fighting back, deploying deceptive maneuvers to get around disclosing the dangers of their products. This intentional manipulation of consumers cannot be allowed to continue.
By law, if a specific FDA-approved product is being promoted, the agency requires that risks and side effects of the product be communicated alongside the benefits. These rules can be circumvented, however, if a more general awareness of a condition is being promoted, rather than a specific drug. For example, Mylan, the company that owns the EpiPen, created an ad campaign about the dangers of anaphylaxis; a voice at the end of the ad encourages consumers to ask their doctors about a prescription treatment for severe allergic reactions. This “unbranded” ad is clearly meant to sell more EpiPens (what else would a doctor prescribe for anaphylaxis?), but because the product isn’t mentioned by name, the risks and side effects of the EpiPen do not need to be disclosed.
Similarly, a commercial that aired during the 2016 Super Bowl “raised awareness” about opioid-induced constipation, encouraging consumers to ask their doctor for a prescription. The ad plugged a website that linked to information about Movantik, a drug made by the companies that paid for the ad, AstraZeneca and Daiichi Sankyo.
The tone of unbranded ads tends to be fearful and ominous, suggesting that if consumers don’t seek a prescription from their doctor, terrible things will happen. Novartis paid for an unbranded drug ad for heart failure depicting a man sitting comfortably in a chair as the room filled with water. As this happens the narrator explains that half of people with heart failure die within five years of being diagnosed.
We can only expect to see more of these ads in the future. The drug industry spent about $171 million on unbranded ads in 2016, which was an increase of 15 percent from the previous year. According to one industry spokesperson, being legally allowed to skip risk disclosures means “you can get more mileage for your dollar in getting the word out.”
These same principles can be used in social media. Drug companies are increasingly looking to use “patient influencers”—people who have sizeable social media followings—to help increase their bottom line. Patient influencers are typically people who have a condition and have developed an online community around that condition—a valuable resource for a drug company. The same tactics used in unbranded drug ads can be deployed using social media influencers: a company can pay an influencer to post about a condition rather than a drug to skirt the rules about discussing side effects and link to a website with more information. After a few clicks around that site, you’re likely to stumble upon a link to a drug to treat the condition, sold by the company who paid the influencer. The drug industry works with patient influencers in a variety of ways to gain access to the patients in their social media following to sell them drugs without overt drug advertising.
The purpose of all this deceptive advertising is to trick consumers into thinking that they are reading a post from a person they trust, while in reality they are being exposed, either directly or indirectly, to drug industry propaganda.
Unbranded ads like this can be difficult for regulators to deal with: when no specific product is mentioned, it is hard to distinguish between an influencer exercising basic freedom of speech and when that influencer is being paid to indirectly help a company sell a drug through their posts. The Federal Trade Commission has attempted to crack down on undisclosed social media celebrity endorsements, but the practice is still rampant.
There is a clear danger here that consumers will be misled into buying products without knowing the dangers or risks of those products. The fix is simple. Congress should step in and ban unbranded drug ads and require that patient influencers disclose when they are being paid to post about a medical condition, just like pharmaceutical companies are required to disclose payments to doctors. When our health is on the line, transparency is key. We cannot let drug companies undermine this basic principle.