WASHINGTON—Drug ads can be confusing and often deceptive, so it makes sense that the Food and Drug Administration would develop a web site aimed at helping consumers separate fact from fiction. But to develop such a site the FDA turned to a nonprofit front group erected by Shaw Science Partners, a public relations firm that specializes in launching new drugs such as Viagra, Celebrex, Zoloft, Cymbalta and the now-withdrawn Rezulin.
CSPI today called on the FDA to scuttle the web site, to terminate its relationship with the drug companies' PR. firm, and to seek out advice from leading physicians, pharmacists, or consumer groups before publishing a new site aimed at educating consumers. The connection between the FDA site and the Big Pharma PR firm was reported this morning in Integrity in Science Watch, published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The website, "Be Smart About Prescription Drug Advertising: A Guide for Consumers," was developed by EthicAd, a non-profit run by Atlanta-based Shaw Science Partners. According to Integrity in Science Watch, Shaw Science partners and other members of EthicAd’s board underwrite the group's expenses, which enables it to donate its services to the FDA. "All members do work for industry; if not all, almost all," company founder Michael Shaw said.
The skimpy site contains examples of correct and incorrect drug ads—advice seemingly more geared to pharmaceutical copywriters than to consumers. For instance, a page showing an ad for a fictional asthma drug offers this jargon-filled critique:
To be a help-seeking ad, the text cannot recommend a specific drug as a treatment because it directs the reader to ask about a specific drug we would consider the ad a product claim ad. Directing the reader to ask a healthcare provider about symptoms is appropriate. To be a help-seeking ad, it could say, "Ask your healthcare provider what you can do."
That kind of clunky stemwider isn't going to be useful to consumers, according to Merrill Goozner, director of the Integrity in Science Project at CSPI.
"It's not that any of the information presented on this web site is wrong, per se," said Goozner. "But if the goal were to educate consumers about drug ads, the site is a dismal failure. Nowhere are consumers encouraged to view drug ads with any kind of skepticism. Nowhere are consumers urged how to evaluate messages about side effects. The agency basically invited an industry-funded front group to write the advice. Not surprisingly, they delivered a turkey."
EthicAd is not registered as a nonprofit with the Internal Revenue Service, though Georgia law allows nonprofits to incorporate there without doing that. Records show that the nonprofit, which shares the same physical address as Shaw Science Partners, is nominally chaired by famed surgeon Michael DeBakey, who died in July at age 99. Shaw himself is identified on the EthicsAd web site not as the head of the PR firm, but as a former medical advisor to the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, a post he held for three years nearly three decades ago.
Integrity in Science Watch is published every Monday and is delivered via email.For more information, contact: Center for Science in the Public Interest