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General News    H2'ed 4/21/18

Pharma Has Good Friends in Media and Academia

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Last year, Pro Publica and Consumer Reports reported how Pharma is surreptitiously enlisting professors at the nation's top universities to write blogs and articles and even host conferences to defend its new sky-high drug prices. How sky-high? In addition to $94,000 for a course of Hep C treatment,

  • Kalydeco, a drug that treats a rare form of cystic fibrosis in patients ages 6 years and older is priced at a $300,000 a year.
  • Acthar, a drug that treats seizures in infants under 2-years-old is priced at a $300,000 a year.
  • Hetlioz, a drug that treats non-24 sleep disorder that costs 60,000 a year.
  • Xyrem, a drug that treats narcolepsy cost $35,000 per year.

Even before the extreme-priced drugs of the past few years, "research" has often been ghostwritten by the drug industry with a media professional or professor's name attached for credibility. The popularity of the withdrawn Vioxx, the birth defect-linked Paxil, Neurontin and the cancer and heart disease-linked HRT (hormone replacement therapy) drugs were all courtesy of ghostwritten papers.

Pharma also has a friend in mainstream media. The New York Times has had on its board Schering-Plough and Eli Lilly affiliates and the Washington Post has had Johnson & Johnson affiliates on its board.. Even PBS and NPR have accepted money from GlaxoSmithKline and UnitedHealthcare. Why are there not more exposes about dangerous, overpriced and sometimes actually unnecessary Pharma drugs? That is probably why.

Then there's, "sponsored content," once known as "advertorials."

Drug Marketing Often Appears as News Content
Drug Marketing Often Appears as News Content
(Image by Martha Rosenberg)
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Before the Internet, there was a strict firewall in newspapers and magazines between news and ads and ads were even marked "advertisement" to leave no doubt. Not anymore.

Thanks to the Internet, sponsored content, also called native or branded content, written by marketers passes as real journalism. While sponsored content was originally associated with younger companies like Vice and BuzzFeed, established outlets like the Atlantic, Slate, The Huffington Post, the Washington Post, Business Insider and the New York Times have also climbed aboard. In one quarter in 2015, the New York Times earned $9 million from such ads, though it was forced to drop the word "Stories" from its label "Stories From Our Advertisers." Why? Readers charged the title was misleading and the content was just advertising.

Sponsored content is a media response to banner ads that are widely ignored, ad blocking technology and readers' almost universal dislike of pop-ups and screen takeovers. It also fills webpages without the need to pay writers. But it is not harmless.

Sure 'WATCH--turtle makes friends with dog" seems innocent and amusing. But what about sponsored content like "Could Statins Cut Alzheimer's Risk?" or "How Testosterone Benefits Your Body"? It is unabashed Pharma marketing masquerading as content.

Some media leaders defend such content as valuable to readers. "It's not advertising. It's about big issues that relate to thought leadership," said president and CEO of the very Pharma-friendly Forbes Media, Michael Perlis. But other media figures are appalled. "I am aghast at this," Andrew Sullivan, former editor of the New Republic, said about advertiser-supplied, sponsored content. "Your average reader" doesn't "realize they are being fed corporate propaganda."

The truth is, in addition to onslaught of TV ads which are clearly from Pharma, a lot of media and academia "content" is Pharma marketing pretending to be news or research.

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Martha Rosenberg is an award-winning investigative public health reporter who covers the food, drug and gun industries. Her first book, Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health, is distributed by Random (more...)

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