Drug Firms Jockey for Space Online

On YouTube, stories about an asthma drug.
On YouTube, stories about an asthma drug. (Youtube)
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By Francesca Lunzer Kritz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 16, 2009

If you're relying solely on TV ads to get drug-company pitches, you're so last month. A growing number of drug firms are trying their luck with social media tools such as Facebook (which is being used to promote several attention-deficit-disorder drugs), YouTube (the asthma drug Symbicort), Twitter (Novartis), blogs (Alli, a nonprescription weight-loss drug) and MySpace (Addiction 411, advice on kicking the prescription painkiller habit from British drugmaker Reckitt Benckiser).

Other industries, including entertainment, technology and beverages, have used social media as a marketing tool for years. But "drug companies, wary of the Food and Drug Administration, which has yet to set rules for marketing drugs via the Internet, and concerned that some consumers might post negative comments or videos, have been timid," says Peter Pitts, a former FDA associate commissioner who now heads the health-care practice in the New York office of public relations firm Porter Novelli.

One of the early adopters in the pharmaceutical industry was Merck, which posted a Facebook page last year to promote Gardasil, a vaccine to help prevent human papillomavirus, which causes some forms of cervical cancer (http://www.facebook.com/takeastepagainstcervicalcancer). Another was GlaxoSmithKline, which used a humorous YouTube video to call awareness to restless legs syndrome; the video tracked a lengthy sequence of household objects falling like dominos, triggered by a kick from one of those restless legs. (The reference to the syndrome was brief and didn't suggest any medication; the company is still seeking FDA approval for this use of its drug Solzira.)

More recently, Bayer Aspirin put up a Facebook page for women (http://www.facebook.com/pages/WomenHeart-Strong-Heart/62833170782). It includes an interactive quiz women can use to assess their risk of heart disease, and it hosts an online community that discusses risk and treatment. Another new interactive site, Celebration Chain (http://www.celebrationchain.com), hosted by Arimidex, a breast cancer drug, offers information about the drug and invites users to celebrate the virtues, such as strength and beauty, of a person they know with breast cancer.

Drug companies aren't giving up on TV advertising: The trade paper Advertising Age reports only a relatively small drop in such spending, from $3 billion in 2007 to $2.9 billion in 2008. But their online budgets are beginning to grow. "As online users of all ages spend more time engaged in social media, drug companies appear to be following," according to Mark Bard, president of Manhattan Research, a technology market research firm. "The reality is that pharmaceutical companies are struggling to keep up with the media preferences of today's health-care consumer."

The FDA is watching the development with interest. "If drug companies or others working on behalf of drug companies wish to promote [their products] using social media tools, FDA would evaluate the resulting messages as to whether they comply with the applicable laws and regulations." said Karen Riley, a spokeswoman for the agency. "Our laws and regulations don't restrict the channels that prescription drug companies choose to use for disseminating product promotional messages."

A survey published by Manhattan Research in November found that more than 60 million U.S. adults are consumers of what some are calling "Health 2.0": health blogs, online support groups and other health-related social media applications. That's double the number who used those sites in 2007, and they represent a wide range of age groups.

The appeal of the sites is that users can usually do more than just gather data, says Chris Schroeder, who runs the Web site HealthCentral. For example, a community site sponsored by drugmaker McNeil (http://www.facebook.com/adhdallies) -- it's aimed at adults with ADHD -- recently offered an online audio conference for caregivers, a comment area, a podcast on financial advice and an ADHD self-assessment tool.

Here are some other recent social media ventures:

-- Shire Pharmaceuticals is sponsoring a virtual "March on the Hill" to increase funding for inflammatory bowel disease. For every "step" a participant takes on the site's virtual Mall, Shire is donating $1 to the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America.

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