The Associated Press reported on the increasing frequency of "disease awareness" advertising featuring celebrities. Examples included Cheryl Ladd talking about menopausal symptoms (for Wyeth, makers of Prempro and Premarin), and Lance Armstrong talking about cancer (for Bristol-Myers-Squibb, makers of various chemotherapeutic agents). Important older examples include Dorothy Hamill and Bruce Jenner talking about arthritis (for Merck, maker of Vioxx, now off the market) and, of course, Bob Dole talking about erectile dysfunction (for Pfizer, maker of Viagra). The article suggests that pharmaceutical companies will be increasingly turning to disease awareness campaigns, since such advertisements do not necessarily mention specific drugs, and hence do not have to discuss adverse effects.
The article noted that celebrities may make from $200,000 to $1 million for such advertisements, and that their work is facilitated by several agencies that specialize in connecting them to health care companies.
I was surprised that Thomas Abrams, head of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) division of marketing, advertising, and communication, endorsed such advertisements, "we think disease awareness commercials are very beneficial. There's a number of diseases in the United States ... which can have devastating effects of they go untreated." Based on the examples above, it appears his definition of "devastating effects" may be a bit broad.
Again, it appears that some pharmaceutical companies are eager to entice patients with emotional appeals made by popular public figures skilled in communicating, but hardly expert in medicine. There won't be any extra support, however, for physicians who will have to balance their patients' new "disease awareness" with the risks and costs of the drug manufacturers' latest products.
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