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Opinion: Celebrities Pushing Drugs?

Celebrity spokespeople for pharma companies can manipulate the public’s understanding of disease.

By | January 30, 2012

Paula Deen at Women's Conference 2010FLICKR, LIFESCRIPT

Earlier this month, celebrity chef Paula Deen announced that she has adult-onset or type 2 diabetes, then accepted a multimillion dollar deal to promote Novo Nordisk’s type 2 diabetes drug, Victoza. Before there was Paula Deen, there was figure skater Dorothy Hamill and actor Wilford Brimley. Indeed, there has been a long line of celebrity spokespeople for pharmaceutical companies, and their track record thus far has been quite poor in terms of honesty, openness, and promoting the public’s health.

Middle-aged arthritis sufferers flocked to their doctors demanding Vioxx for pain relief after watching Hamill figure skate in TV ads touting the drug shortly into the new millennium. We now have evidence that Vioxx caused as many as 140,000 extra cases of serious heart disease in the United States during the years that its maker concealed evidence of its risks, and it was withdrawn from the US market in 2004.

All right, you say, Hamill was paid to shill for a dangerous drug. But what could be wrong with Brimley telling diabetics to check their blood sugar?

There is one group of patients with type 2 diabetes, the most common form of the disease, who need to check their sugar levels frequently and who really need those cute little machines. Those are also those (apparently including Brimley) who take insulin shots. But the majority of type 2 diabetes folks take only oral medicines or use diet and exercise to regulate their blood sugar. From those ubiquitous TV ads in the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, you’d guess that scientific studies show great health advantages to religiously using home glucose monitors.

Funny thing, though. The available research shows overwhelmingly that there’s no known health benefit to home glucose monitoring for people not on insulin. A number of large studies on improving outcomes and death rates in diabetes show consistently that tight blood sugar control is not where the action is. Rather, type 2 diabetes tends to strike through severe complications like heart attacks, strokes, kidney failure, and other diseases that basically are caused by diabetes’ effects on both large and small blood vessels. Doing things to protect yourself from those diseases—diet, exercise, stopping smoking, controlling blood pressure, and so on—improves and lengthens life in diabetics. Lowering blood sugar by itself hardly helps at all.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for highly-paid celebrity spokespersons to tell you these important medical facts on TV. And the reason they won’t is part of why the whole system of celebrities touting drugs and medical devices is unfortunate for public health. These ads don’t just sell us products. They sell us ways to think about disease. And the industry wants to be sure that the way we think about a disease is whatever way is best for pushing their sales and profits.

Physician and historian Jeremy Greene wrote about this a few years ago. He showed how the pharmaceutical industry jumped onto the preventive medicine bandwagon to convince both doctors and the rest of us to “prescribe by the numbers”—not to ask what drugs actually lengthened life or improved quality, but simply to be happy when a lab test result, such as blood sugar or cholesterol, was high and a drug made it go lower. It turns out that it’s much easier to discover and market a drug that makes your lab values look prettier than it is to find drugs that really save lives and prevent heart attacks. But most of us simply assume that lower lab numbers mean less risk and a healthier future—a connection that medical research informs us is often missing. (A great book on this frequent lack of connection is Overdiagnosed  by W. Gilbert Welch.)

Now, at this point I have to add the usual disclaimer, and then a disclaimer on the disclaimer. The disclaimer is that you should treat your medical condition based on your doctor’s advice and not what you read on a blog or news outlet. If you have diabetes, for instance, find a physician that you trust and follow that physician’s advice, though you should also ask questions and feel free to do your own research.

But here’s disclaimer squared: when a drug or device company markets products to you with a celebrity spokesperson, you can be sure that the same marketing, probably on steroids, is going on behind the scenes in doctors’ offices and hospital corridors. When at least 84 percent of American doctors regularly rely on industry salespeople for critical information about drugs, the “prescribe by the numbers” message is just as ingrained in their thinking as it is in the general public’s. (The celebrities that drug companies use to brainwash doctors are not the Wilford Brimleys of the world, but rather distinguished medical school faculty physicians who happily take company money to serve on their speakers’ bureaus and to push the company marketing message.)

So, bottom line: is there something especially bad about any single celebrity deciding to shill for a particular drug or medical device, like Paula Deen telling us to eat cheeseburgers and also take good care of our diabetes? Maybe yes, maybe no. Is there a problem with how these products are marketed in the United States today? Absolutely.

Howard Brody is a family physician and medical ethicist and directs the Institute for the Medical Humanities at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. He maintains a blog on the ethics of the relationship between the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry.

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Comments

Avatar of: John Mack

John Mack

Posts: 1457

January 31, 2012

Thanks for this insight. I am currently doing a survey that asks the following questions:

Is it OK for pharmaceutical companies to pay celebrities -- TV and movie stars, sports figures, etc -- to be spokespeople to raise awareness of medical conditions or to promote specific Rx treatments? Do such celebrity spokespeople provide a good return on investment for pharmaceutical marketers? Should each pharmaceutical company be required to publicly disclose how much money it pays celebrity spokespeople?

I hope you and your readers will respond to this survey: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/...

After taking the survey, you will be able to see the results to date plus get a copy of the article: Thanks for this insight. I am currently doing a survey that asks the following questions:

Is it OK for pharmaceutical companies to pay celebrities -- TV and movie stars, sports figures, etc -- to be spokespeople to raise awareness of medical conditions or to promote specific Rx treatments? Do such celebrity spokespeople provide a good return on investment for pharmaceutical marketers? Should each pharmaceutical company be required to publicly disclose how much money it pays celebrity spokespeople?

I hope you and your readers will respond to this survey: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/...

After taking the survey, you will be able to see the results to date plus get a copy of the article: Novo Nordisk Defends Choice of Paula Deen as Diabetes Spokesperson

Thanks,
Pharmaguy

Avatar of: Dr_Mac

Dr_Mac

Posts: 1

January 31, 2012

There is a fairly easy way to take care of this!  Congress needs to pass a law saying that these celebrity shills are personally responsible and liable for any and all comments they are paid to make about drugs, reverse mortgages and all of the other products they are trying to sell the elderly!

Avatar of: Luminita

Luminita

Posts: 1457

January 31, 2012

Pharma is behaving like any other industry in the comsumist era. They are pushing, manipulating, providing fabricated data and thrive. Nobody can stop then nor want to, as everybody has a share. There is the need of a rise in consciousness and this can oly come from the part of medics involved in prescribing them. To be honest, I think humankind consciousness has not reached that level where collective well being and safety is more importanat that individual one. I very much hope I am wrong.

Avatar of: deadscience

deadscience

Posts: 3

January 31, 2012

While I will not argue with the tenet of this column that drug marketing in the US has problems that need to be fixed.  This article is a threat to public health by its spreading dangerously inaccurate description of blood glucose control in type II diabetics.  As shown conclusively by both the NIH-funded Diabetes Control and Complications Trial (DCCT) and the United Kingdom Prospective Diabetes Study (UKPDS), which are the largest prospective studies to every examine this problem, reduction of blood glucose is directly related to the co-morbidities of diabetes (i.e., the "severe complications like heart attacks, strokes, kidney failure, and other diseases that basically are caused by diabetes’ effects on both large and small blood vessels" cited in the article).

Dr. Brody and The Scientist need to do their readers a service (both diabetics and their caregivers) and retract/correct the fallacies in the above article.  And please have a disease expert review any articles in the future when public health advice is given.

Thank you.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 31, 2012

Thanks for this insight. I am currently doing a survey that asks the following questions:

Is it OK for pharmaceutical companies to pay celebrities -- TV and movie stars, sports figures, etc -- to be spokespeople to raise awareness of medical conditions or to promote specific Rx treatments? Do such celebrity spokespeople provide a good return on investment for pharmaceutical marketers? Should each pharmaceutical company be required to publicly disclose how much money it pays celebrity spokespeople?

I hope you and your readers will respond to this survey: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/...

After taking the survey, you will be able to see the results to date plus get a copy of the article: Thanks for this insight. I am currently doing a survey that asks the following questions:

Is it OK for pharmaceutical companies to pay celebrities -- TV and movie stars, sports figures, etc -- to be spokespeople to raise awareness of medical conditions or to promote specific Rx treatments? Do such celebrity spokespeople provide a good return on investment for pharmaceutical marketers? Should each pharmaceutical company be required to publicly disclose how much money it pays celebrity spokespeople?

I hope you and your readers will respond to this survey: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/...

After taking the survey, you will be able to see the results to date plus get a copy of the article: Novo Nordisk Defends Choice of Paula Deen as Diabetes Spokesperson

Thanks,
Pharmaguy

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 31, 2012

There is a fairly easy way to take care of this!  Congress needs to pass a law saying that these celebrity shills are personally responsible and liable for any and all comments they are paid to make about drugs, reverse mortgages and all of the other products they are trying to sell the elderly!

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 31, 2012

Pharma is behaving like any other industry in the comsumist era. They are pushing, manipulating, providing fabricated data and thrive. Nobody can stop then nor want to, as everybody has a share. There is the need of a rise in consciousness and this can oly come from the part of medics involved in prescribing them. To be honest, I think humankind consciousness has not reached that level where collective well being and safety is more importanat that individual one. I very much hope I am wrong.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 31, 2012

While I will not argue with the tenet of this column that drug marketing in the US has problems that need to be fixed.  This article is a threat to public health by its spreading dangerously inaccurate description of blood glucose control in type II diabetics.  As shown conclusively by both the NIH-funded Diabetes Control and Complications Trial (DCCT) and the United Kingdom Prospective Diabetes Study (UKPDS), which are the largest prospective studies to every examine this problem, reduction of blood glucose is directly related to the co-morbidities of diabetes (i.e., the "severe complications like heart attacks, strokes, kidney failure, and other diseases that basically are caused by diabetes’ effects on both large and small blood vessels" cited in the article).

Dr. Brody and The Scientist need to do their readers a service (both diabetics and their caregivers) and retract/correct the fallacies in the above article.  And please have a disease expert review any articles in the future when public health advice is given.

Thank you.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 31, 2012

Thanks for this insight. I am currently doing a survey that asks the following questions:

Is it OK for pharmaceutical companies to pay celebrities -- TV and movie stars, sports figures, etc -- to be spokespeople to raise awareness of medical conditions or to promote specific Rx treatments? Do such celebrity spokespeople provide a good return on investment for pharmaceutical marketers? Should each pharmaceutical company be required to publicly disclose how much money it pays celebrity spokespeople?

I hope you and your readers will respond to this survey: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/...

After taking the survey, you will be able to see the results to date plus get a copy of the article: Thanks for this insight. I am currently doing a survey that asks the following questions:

Is it OK for pharmaceutical companies to pay celebrities -- TV and movie stars, sports figures, etc -- to be spokespeople to raise awareness of medical conditions or to promote specific Rx treatments? Do such celebrity spokespeople provide a good return on investment for pharmaceutical marketers? Should each pharmaceutical company be required to publicly disclose how much money it pays celebrity spokespeople?

I hope you and your readers will respond to this survey: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/...

After taking the survey, you will be able to see the results to date plus get a copy of the article: Novo Nordisk Defends Choice of Paula Deen as Diabetes Spokesperson

Thanks,
Pharmaguy

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 31, 2012

There is a fairly easy way to take care of this!  Congress needs to pass a law saying that these celebrity shills are personally responsible and liable for any and all comments they are paid to make about drugs, reverse mortgages and all of the other products they are trying to sell the elderly!

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 31, 2012

Pharma is behaving like any other industry in the comsumist era. They are pushing, manipulating, providing fabricated data and thrive. Nobody can stop then nor want to, as everybody has a share. There is the need of a rise in consciousness and this can oly come from the part of medics involved in prescribing them. To be honest, I think humankind consciousness has not reached that level where collective well being and safety is more importanat that individual one. I very much hope I am wrong.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

January 31, 2012

While I will not argue with the tenet of this column that drug marketing in the US has problems that need to be fixed.  This article is a threat to public health by its spreading dangerously inaccurate description of blood glucose control in type II diabetics.  As shown conclusively by both the NIH-funded Diabetes Control and Complications Trial (DCCT) and the United Kingdom Prospective Diabetes Study (UKPDS), which are the largest prospective studies to every examine this problem, reduction of blood glucose is directly related to the co-morbidities of diabetes (i.e., the "severe complications like heart attacks, strokes, kidney failure, and other diseases that basically are caused by diabetes’ effects on both large and small blood vessels" cited in the article).

Dr. Brody and The Scientist need to do their readers a service (both diabetics and their caregivers) and retract/correct the fallacies in the above article.  And please have a disease expert review any articles in the future when public health advice is given.

Thank you.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 1, 2012

The problem has nothing to do with celebrities, as Dr. Brody gets around to pointing out in the last paragraph.  The problem is the drug companies and their ad campaigns.  My favorite is the Rafael Palmeiro viagra ads: "Rafael takes batting practice, and Rafael is a batting champion.  Rafael takes fielding practice, and Rafael is a Golden Glove winner.  Rafael takes viagra...."  The implication is that even if you are a champion, you need to tune up your game -- a brilliant pitch to market viagra to men who don't need it.  Hey, disapproval doesn't mean you can't admire genius.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 1, 2012

The problem has nothing to do with celebrities, as Dr. Brody gets around to pointing out in the last paragraph.  The problem is the drug companies and their ad campaigns.  My favorite is the Rafael Palmeiro viagra ads: "Rafael takes batting practice, and Rafael is a batting champion.  Rafael takes fielding practice, and Rafael is a Golden Glove winner.  Rafael takes viagra...."  The implication is that even if you are a champion, you need to tune up your game -- a brilliant pitch to market viagra to men who don't need it.  Hey, disapproval doesn't mean you can't admire genius.

Avatar of: mightythor

mightythor

Posts: 1457

February 1, 2012

The problem has nothing to do with celebrities, as Dr. Brody gets around to pointing out in the last paragraph.  The problem is the drug companies and their ad campaigns.  My favorite is the Rafael Palmeiro viagra ads: "Rafael takes batting practice, and Rafael is a batting champion.  Rafael takes fielding practice, and Rafael is a Golden Glove winner.  Rafael takes viagra...."  The implication is that even if you are a champion, you need to tune up your game -- a brilliant pitch to market viagra to men who don't need it.  Hey, disapproval doesn't mean you can't admire genius.

Avatar of: somebodyelse6

somebodyelse6

Posts: 1

February 7, 2012

The problem isn't that she is marketing the drug.  The problem is that she also is trying to create new patients for this drug by encouraging people to eat in a way that will lead them to needing this drug.  Therein lies the conflict of interest.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 7, 2012

The problem isn't that she is marketing the drug.  The problem is that she also is trying to create new patients for this drug by encouraging people to eat in a way that will lead them to needing this drug.  Therein lies the conflict of interest.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 7, 2012

The problem isn't that she is marketing the drug.  The problem is that she also is trying to create new patients for this drug by encouraging people to eat in a way that will lead them to needing this drug.  Therein lies the conflict of interest.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 22, 2012

No, Dr Brody isn't saying not to control blood sugar with type II diabetes - he's saying that the glucose monitors are ineffective for most cases, and may give people a false sense of management when controlling glucose is only a small part of treatment.

Do you work for a glucose monitor manufacturer?

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 22, 2012

No, your interpretation of the article is incorrect. Dr Brody states "...available research shows overwhelmingly that there’s no known health benefit to home glucose monitoring for people not on insulin."  This statement is wrong and is dangerous advice to type 2 diabetics whose blood glucose is poorly controlled. As I stated in my response, the large UKPDS trial conclusively demonstrated that improved glucose control led to reduced morbidity and mortality.  While the gold standard for assessing blood glucose control is hemoglobin A1c levels, random blood glucose levels that are measured with a home glucose monitor and recorded in a daily log are extremely helpful for a physician or endocrinologist to personalize a diabetics treatment.

As to Chris Craig's insulting innuendo that I work for a glucose monitor manufacturer; no I do not.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 22, 2012

No, Dr Brody isn't saying not to control blood sugar with type II diabetes - he's saying that the glucose monitors are ineffective for most cases, and may give people a false sense of management when controlling glucose is only a small part of treatment.

Do you work for a glucose monitor manufacturer?

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 22, 2012

No, your interpretation of the article is incorrect. Dr Brody states "...available research shows overwhelmingly that there’s no known health benefit to home glucose monitoring for people not on insulin."  This statement is wrong and is dangerous advice to type 2 diabetics whose blood glucose is poorly controlled. As I stated in my response, the large UKPDS trial conclusively demonstrated that improved glucose control led to reduced morbidity and mortality.  While the gold standard for assessing blood glucose control is hemoglobin A1c levels, random blood glucose levels that are measured with a home glucose monitor and recorded in a daily log are extremely helpful for a physician or endocrinologist to personalize a diabetics treatment.

As to Chris Craig's insulting innuendo that I work for a glucose monitor manufacturer; no I do not.

Avatar of: Chris Craig

Chris Craig

Posts: 1

February 22, 2012

No, Dr Brody isn't saying not to control blood sugar with type II diabetes - he's saying that the glucose monitors are ineffective for most cases, and may give people a false sense of management when controlling glucose is only a small part of treatment.

Do you work for a glucose monitor manufacturer?

Avatar of: deadscience

deadscience

Posts: 3

February 22, 2012

No, your interpretation of the article is incorrect. Dr Brody states "...available research shows overwhelmingly that there’s no known health benefit to home glucose monitoring for people not on insulin."  This statement is wrong and is dangerous advice to type 2 diabetics whose blood glucose is poorly controlled. As I stated in my response, the large UKPDS trial conclusively demonstrated that improved glucose control led to reduced morbidity and mortality.  While the gold standard for assessing blood glucose control is hemoglobin A1c levels, random blood glucose levels that are measured with a home glucose monitor and recorded in a daily log are extremely helpful for a physician or endocrinologist to personalize a diabetics treatment.

As to Chris Craig's insulting innuendo that I work for a glucose monitor manufacturer; no I do not.

Avatar of: MJHopeC

MJHopeC

Posts: 1

February 23, 2012

Nice one but this is across the board.  Books by Dr Marcia Angell's (ex-editor-in-chief of the NEJM) book "The Truth about Drug Companies...." highlights this problem of integrity ???????? in Bog Pharma companies.  The history of the FDA w.r.t. to fining them (despite the attempts to protect) re-inforces this view "commercial" power in the pharmaceutical industry

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 23, 2012

Nice one but this is across the board.  Books by Dr Marcia Angell's (ex-editor-in-chief of the NEJM) book "The Truth about Drug Companies...." highlights this problem of integrity ???????? in Bog Pharma companies.  The history of the FDA w.r.t. to fining them (despite the attempts to protect) re-inforces this view "commercial" power in the pharmaceutical industry

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 23, 2012

Nice one but this is across the board.  Books by Dr Marcia Angell's (ex-editor-in-chief of the NEJM) book "The Truth about Drug Companies...." highlights this problem of integrity ???????? in Bog Pharma companies.  The history of the FDA w.r.t. to fining them (despite the attempts to protect) re-inforces this view "commercial" power in the pharmaceutical industry

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 24, 2012

Sylvester Stallone promotes the use of testosterone and HGH.  I saw him and Arnold in a picture in hospital bed side-by-side preparing for shoulder surgery.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

February 24, 2012

Sylvester Stallone promotes the use of testosterone and HGH.  I saw him and Arnold in a picture in hospital bed side-by-side preparing for shoulder surgery.

Avatar of: Manda

Manda

Posts: 1457

February 24, 2012

Sylvester Stallone promotes the use of testosterone and HGH.  I saw him and Arnold in a picture in hospital bed side-by-side preparing for shoulder surgery.

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