There’s nothing like a celebrity endorsement to move a drug off the shelves and into the nation’s medicine cabinets. TV personality Joan Lunden and former baseball star Mike Piazza stumped for the allergy pill Claritin, ice skater Dorothy Hamill and track star Bruce Jenner for the pain pill Vioxx, and Sen. Bob Dole, of course, pushed Viagra. Dr. Robert Jarvik hawked Lipitor, singer Wynonna Judd stumped for the diet drug Alli and Brooke Shields pushed the eyelash lengthener Latisse. Celebrities even pushed psychiatric drugs like NASCAR figure Bobby Labonte who promoted the antidepressant Wellbutrin XL. And who can forget Kathleen Turner sharing her battle with rheumatoid arthritis on CNN? Ka-ching.
But what happens when things go awry? Did Dorothy Hamill know that Vioxx doubled the risk of heart attacks in users? Did the model Lauren Hutton know that hormone replacement therapy causes increased breast cancer and heart attacks when she shilled for it? Does actress Sally Field know that bone drugs like Boniva are linked to esophageal cancer, jawbone death and the very fractures they are supposed to prevent? Oops.
Some of Pharma’s most aggressive advertising is to convince parents their children’s minor sniffles or wheezing are imminent asthma and need treatment. Merck used Olympic gold-medalist swimmer Peter Vanderkaay and NBA kid clubs to sell the asthma drug Singulair, despite the drug’s links to suicide and emotional disturbances in children, according to Fox News and other sources. Merck also partnered with the American Academy of Pediatrics and Scholastic to sell Singulair, both of which parents consider neutral organizations not Pharma mouthpieces . The result? Singulair became the nation’s seventh best-selling drug before its patent ran out.
Another Big Pharma campaign used an Angelina Jolie look-alike model to sell the anti-Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine Cervarix. The campaign, called “armed against cervical cancer,” makes the vaccine appear “cool” despite the fact that it is expensive, no more effective against cervical cancer than a Pap smear and has significant reported side effects.
It’s no secret that vaccines are Pharma’s new profit centers and that government recommendations help sell them. Remember the heated exchange between presidential candidates Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann about the HPV vaccine’s safety two years ago? Perry’s chief of staff had left to work at Merck and had apparently squeezed his old boss, Perry, to get Texas to use Merck vaccines.
Many of Pharma’s most advertised drugs are also its most dangerous. Ads for genetically-engineered injected drugs like Humira use glamour–one promises “clear skin”–even though they treat serious diseases like Crohn’s and invite cancers and lethal infections because they suppress the immune system. The antidepressant Cymbalta was the fourth most advertised drug before its patent ran out and the top ad on WebMD for years. (WebMD’s original partner was Eli Lilly so that is no surprise.) The problem was it was not that safe–causing suicide in volunteers who tested it and linked to serious liver problems.
Have you read my cartoon-illustrated book on these topics? Born With a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks, and Hacks Pimp the Public Health will make you laugh, cry and change your eating habits. It is available from Random House, at Barnes and Noble, as an ebook on Amazon and in most libraries. A great holiday gift.