Well­ness Arti­cles

Celebri­ties Paid to Push Drugs on TV Talk Shows

Sev­eral pub­li­ca­tions have started expos­ing a pre­vi­ously unknown tac­tic by drug com­pa­nies to pro­mote their prod­ucts. In the July 23, 2002 issue of the Guardian Unlim­ited, was a report of and appear­ance by actress Kath­leen Turner on the pop­u­lar morn­ing TV show, “Good Morn­ing Amer­ica”. In her appear­ance Ms. Turner told the view­ing audi­ence that she had been bat­tling rheuma­toid arthri­tis for more than a year. Turner then went on to men­tion a web­site, www​.ra​-access​.com, where fel­low suf­fer­ers could get help.

What the audi­ence did not know, but what was revealed in the arti­cle was that Turner had been paid by two drug com­pa­nies to speak out about her ill­ness. “She gets a fee,” con­firms Robin Shapiro, a spokes­woman for Immunex, a bio-​pharmaceutical com­pany, which along with fel­low phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal giant Wyeth, funded a media cam­paign for which Turner was hired to do a num­ber of TV and print interviews.

Another bla­tant exam­ple appeared in both the Aug. 18, 2002 New York Times and the Ari­zona Repub­lic. These arti­cles reported on an inter­view with screen leg­end Lau­ren Bacall, who appeared on the NBC Today pro­gram in March, telling Matt Lauer about a good friend who had gone blind from an eye dis­ease and urg­ing the audi­ence to see their doc­tors to be tested for it. Bacall then men­tioned a drug called Visu­dyne, a new treat­ment for the dis­ease known as mac­u­lar degeneration.

What the view­ers of this show, as well as NBCHome page did not real­ize was that Ms Bacall was also being paid to tell the story. In an attempt of jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, Dr. Yvonne John­son, med­ical affairs direc­tor for the oph­thalmics divi­sion of Novar­tis, the Swiss drug­maker that sells Visu­dyne, stated, “We com­pen­sated her for her time.” She con­tin­ued, “We real­ized peo­ple would accept what she was telling them,” said John­son, who declined to say how much Bacall had been paid. “Our whole intent is to let peo­ple know they don’t have to go blind.”

The New York Times arti­cle exposes that dozens of celebri­ties, from Bacall to Kath­leen Turner, Olympia Dukakis and Rob Lowe, have been paid hefty fees to appear on tele­vi­sion talk shows and morn­ing news pro­grams and to dis­close inti­mate details of ail­ments that afflict them or peo­ple close to them. Often, they men­tion brand-​name drugs with­out dis­clos­ing their finan­cial ties to the medicine’s maker.

This type of covert drug adver­tis­ing is rais­ing some oppo­si­tion. Dr. Joseph Turow, a pro­fes­sor at the Annen­berg School for Com­mu­ni­ca­tion at the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia, responds by say­ing “It is highly prob­lem­atic and maybe even uneth­i­cal.” In refer­ring to the celebri­ties that endorse drugs in a covert way he com­ments, “We admire these peo­ple, and that is why drug com­pa­nies pay for their time and ser­vices,” Turow said. “But when it comes to issues of health, par­tic­u­larly med­i­cines, trans­parency is an eth­i­cal con­cern. Peo­ple should be clear about the rea­sons they are mak­ing cer­tain recommendations.”

One inter­est­ing con­cern raised in these arti­cles was that the drug com­pa­nies can avoid fed­eral drug adver­tis­ing reg­u­la­tions by hir­ing celebri­ties for these types of pro­mo­tions by call­ing them cam­paigns to raise aware­ness about a dis­ease. Fed­eral reg­u­la­tions require that all pre­scrip­tion drug ads dis­close the medicine’s adverse effects and refrain from over­stat­ing its effec­tive­ness. If a celebrity does not men­tion a pre­scrip­tion drug by name, the Food and Drug Admin­is­tra­tion con­sid­ers the event edu­ca­tional, not pro­mo­tional, and does not reg­u­late it.

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