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.