BIG PHARMA’S MARKETING MACHINE OUT OF CONTROL

A beachside cabin on the Sunshine Coast with no cable or wifi? Bring it on. There’s nothing like a stretch of electronic austerity to get someone like me back to holiday basics. When my wife and I arrived at the rustic retreat, I collapsed into a deckchair with some light reading left behind by the owners: a July issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.

Who doesn’t love Oprah, who reigned for years as the daytime BFF of homebodies, housewives and shut-ins? Well, call me a curmudgeon on training wheels, but it took only a minute or two for her glossy lifestyle vehicle to wind me up.

“Clearer skin is possible,” reads an ad for Humira, a drug targeting sufferers of psoriasis. A beautiful mother pores over a bedtime story with her beautiful children above the caption: “illustration of 75 per cent clearance at 4 months. Results may vary.” No kidding. A few paragraphs of the five-page ad are devoted to claimed health benefits from Humira, a “medicine that affects your immune system.” The rest is a laundry list of risk factors, common side effects, and corporate legalese.

“Serious infections have happened in people taking Humira. These serious infections include tuberculosis (TB) and infections caused by viruses, fungi or bacteria that have spread through the body. Some people have died from these infections.” Because Humira is a TNF (tumour necrosis factor) blocker, “the chances of getting cancer may increase.” No risk figures are offered.

The drug is often used to treat moderate to severe rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease, but the pitch to psoriasis sufferers suggests a bigger demographic of itchers. Possible side effects include allergic reaction, nervous system problems, or “new heart failure or worsening of heart failure you already have.”

Thanks, but I think I’ll keep the psoriasis.

A few pages away there’s an ad for the antidepressant Abilify. A doleful looking woman sits with a cup of coffee, while a large cartoon capsule pushes halfheartedly against her arm. “My antidepressant worked hard. But sometimes I still struggled with my depression,” reads the caption. Abilify’s risks include “uncontrollable facial or body movements” from tardive dyskinesia (which a more adventurous drug copywriter might describe as “dancing”.)

“Tardive dyskinesia may become permanent and the risk of TD may increase with the length of treatment and the overall dose” of Abilify. Other risks include “decreases in white blood cells (which can be serious) seizures, trouble swallowing, or impairment in judgment or motor skills.” There’s also “risk of suicidal thoughts and actions” for younger users. At least the common side effects — nausea, vomiting, constipation, headache, dizziness, anxiety and insomnia — occurred in less than 10 per cent of adults in clinical trials. Better odds than Russian roulette, in other words.

Does Oprah ever read her own publication? Less than fully relaxed, I tossed her lifestyle rag aside and turned to People to get the latest word on celebrity baby bumps and Kim Kardashian’s Sisyphean struggle with her caboose. Same thing there: a clutch of big pharma ads with “consumer brief summaries” worthy of CSI scripts. I tore out the ads for reference material, and returned to O mag to do the same.

These sorts of ads used to appear only in medical trade journals, but the corporate pill-pushers now pinpoint their targets through popular magazines, in the hope afflicted readers will petition for a prescription from their GPs, who are already under sample-and-brochure bombardment from drug rep formations.

We’ve all seen the TV variant of this form of advertising, where some older couple gambols across a flower-dappled field as a speed-reader voiceover rhymes off the Walking Dead complications and contraindications. But where’s the accountability? Most everyone I know has a story of a friend or relative harmed by physician-assisted screwicide. (My father was seriously damaged by a well-known anti-inflammatory drug, and an ex-girlfriend suffered from the severe side-effects of a dermatologist-prescribed acne cream.)

What will future generations make of today’s out-of-control medical-pharmaceutical-marketing complex, and our complicit healthcare providers? I suspect they will judge medieval apothecaries slightly better, and 19th century snake oil only slightly worse. If past class action suits from drug-damaged consumers are any indication, we’re still medically somewhere between the Dark Ages and the Wild West.

 The Vancouver Courier, Aug. 15

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