Friday, March 31, 2006

Celebrities Get Paid To Make Drugs Sound Fab

Celebrity pill pushers
By Lawrence Goodman
Kathleen Turner was on television recently talking about her pain and suffering. "The damage that I have, the damage I'll always have could have been prevented," the actress told "Good Morning, America" host Diane Sawyer on Feb. 19. Sawyer was sympathetic. Turner, she knew from a previous interview, had been battling rheumatoid arthritis for over a year now.
"You're still in pain?" Sawyer asked. "Well," Turner responded, "as they say: only when you walk." Turner then went on to mention a Web site,, where fellow sufferers could get help. Sawyer eagerly repeated the site's address in case viewers missed it.

All of this would have been your standard bit of early-morning show chitchat if Turner had not been paid by two drug companies to speak out about her illness. "She gets a fee," confirms Robin Shapiro, a spokeswoman for Immunex, a bio-pharmaceutical company, which along with Wyeth, funded a media campaign for which Turner was hired to do a number of TV and print interviews. The two companies jointly manufacture an arthritis drug called Enbrel. They also happen to operate the Web site that Turner and Sawyer plugged as so helpful to arthritis sufferers. The site is a marketing tool for Immunex and Wyeth. Visitors are asked to supply personal information, which, according to Shapiro, is used to send them promotional materials on Enbrel, a drug competing with several others in a multibillion-dollar market for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.

These sorts of below-the-radar media campaigns, which blur the line between drug advertising and public service efforts, are now rampant. And increasingly crucial to the success of these carefully orchestrated blitzes are celebrities willing to pour out their hearts about how they or a close relative have struggled with a particular illness -- for a price. In the last few years gymnast Bart Connor, Olympic figure skater Dorothy Hamill, jockey Julie Krone, former NFL coach Bill Parcells, San Francisco 49er legend Joe Montana, actors Rita Moreno, Bob Uecker and Debbie Reynolds have participated in this drill for various drug companies. "West Wing" star Rob Lowe recently embarked on a drug-company sponsored awareness campaign for a cancer-related illness called febrile neutropenia that will reportedly net him $1 million. "It's become a hugely gray area as to where the stars' charitableness begins and where their financial interests begin," says Barry Greenberg, a Hollywood talent agent whose firm, Celebrity Connection, specializes in recruiting stars for the drug companies.
In 1997, under growing pressure from pharmaceutical companies, the Food and Drug Administration relaxed its regulations on television advertising for prescription drugs. The industry promptly went on a multibillion-dollar spending spree, bombarding the airwaves with commercials for their products. Having seen the fundraising successes of nonprofit organizations and foundations linked to specific illnesses that used celebrities to raise awareness about health issues, pharmaceutical flacks made immediate efforts to tap into this star power. Joan Lunden was hired to hawk the asthma drug Claritin in 1998. Bob Dole flacked for Viagra in 1999. (That's ridiculous!)

Celebrity-driven public awareness campaigns completely obscure the financial relationship between the star and the drug company, while allowing both parties to avoid any talk of side effects or potential problems with the drug. With all hints of drugs and money hidden from view, celebrities were again willing to sign up, taking fees as high as $1 million to do a raft of television and newspaper interviews in which they speak about a particular illness and urge sufferers to seek treatment.
Thomas Abrams, who monitors marketing by the pharmaceutical industry for the FDA, says the agency would only take action against a drug company if the star employed by the company greatly exaggerated a drug's benefits. Otherwise, Abrams says, celebrities, like any other citizen energized by a cause, are free to say whatever they please. On May 23, 2000, actress Olympia Dukakis appeared on the Fox News channel to talk about her mother's battle with post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN), a debilitating condition brought on by shingles. Her mother "would sit muted in pain," Dukakis told viewers. "She couldn't even touch her hair. That's how painful it can get." Dukakis then went on to say that others need not suffer like her mother did, that there are new, better treatments out there. "In fact, there is one solution," she said. "It's called lidocaine or lidopatch."

PHN sufferers who went to their doctors and asked about lidocaine or lidopatch would have found out that there is only one drug Dukakis could have been speaking about, Lidoderm. Lidoderm is a patch that right now is the only formulation of lidocaine approved by the FDA to treat PHN. It also happens to be manufactured by Endo Pharmaceuticals, which was paying Dukakis to do the Fox interview. "Yes, she was compensated," says Sherri Michelstein, who was hired by Endo to organize the media campaign. Of course, the television audience never learned about Dukakis' ties to Endo. "The tireless actress is constantly on the move," Fox anchor Paula Zahn said in introducing Dukakis. "But now, she's set her sights on helping to ease the pain of more than a million Americans."

In 1999, not only did Carnie Wilson undergo gastric bypass surgery, which meant having her stomach stapled down to the size of a fist so she couldn't eat as much, she also volunteered to let an Internet site broadcast the procedure live. Over the next three years, Wilson became the nation's poster child for the benefits of gastric bypass. "Since the surgery, I feel lighter, I feel sexier -- inspired," a 150-pound Wilson told People magazine (and many other media outlets) in April of 2000. People did a total of three stories on Wilson, two of them front covers. She was also interviewed on ABC's "Good Morning, America" six times and on the news magazine "20/20" five times. Asked once why she chose to go public about her obesity, she said, "It's just -- if it can help people, then I'm happy to do it."
But it wasn't just about helping people, unless you count Wilson as one of those people, and throw in some cash. Wilson gets paid to do appearances where she talks about her surgery. Her corporate sponsors are Tenet Healthcare, a for-profit hospital chain that does gastric bypass operations at its facilities; and Vista Medical Technologies, which makes the medical equipment needed to perform the procedure.
The fourth business partner in Wilson's extraordinarily successful media campaign is her former manager's Internet company, which has since morphed into an L.A.-based public relations and marketing firm called Spotlight Health. Spotlight now focuses almost entirely on celebrity-driven health awareness campaigns.
Wilson doesn't see anything wrong with taking money from Tenet and Vista. "I don't need the money. That's not why I do it," she said. "Every day of my life I am committed to people and helping them get healthy." Wilson says she doesn't believe her corporate connections need to be revealed to the public. "That's all bullshit," she says. "We're talking about health issues and being able to help somebody by making them more informed."
There is no doubt that Wilson's outspokenness has played a huge role in popularizing a risky, complicated and expensive procedure. The American Society for Bariatric Surgery credits her with having a major role in publicizing the benefits of gastric bypass, which has seen a huge surge in popularity since 1999. Vista Medical Technologies, which also makes postoperative vitamins for gastric bypass surgery and runs training courses on the procedure for doctors, has had its revenues double since Wilson began her campaign.

It's not that hard to find out who's really behind a health awareness campaign. A quick search of Nexis will turn up press releases put out by public relations firms or the drug companies' themselves announcing their affiliation with a particular celebrity. Celebrities like Christopher Reeve, who doesn't have any affiliation with a drug company, have left the public ever more hungry to hear stars describe their battles with illness. Drug companies are now exploiting that hunger; the news media is more then willing to let them do that if it means access to celebrities. As one ABC News executive said, "The bottom line? If a celebrity has a compelling story to tell, we want to tell it."

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