Disease Awareness

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A GlaxoSmithKline ad promoting Restless Legs Syndrome. The company makes Requip, which is used to treat the condition.

Disease Awareness campaigns are one strand in drug industry marketing strategies. They commonly seek to promote "awareness" of a particular condition or disease and encourage viewers to contact their doctor but don't mention specific brand name drugs. They primarily consist of television and magazine advertisements, usually with a strong emotional hook. As they don't promote a specific drug, there is no requirement to make consumers aware of potential risks of drug treatments. In parallel, but almost always invisibly, a parallel campaign will be run with the aim of priming doctors to prescribe the company's drug to treat the advertised condition. The benefit of running such campaigns is in expanding the number of potential customers by boosting the number of people consulting their doctor and asking about the advertised symptoms.

In some instances, disease awareness campaigns are run under the aegis of patient groups but with funds contributed by one or more drug company sponsors.

In countries where direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA) is banned, disease awareness campaigns can effectively help expand the market. However, they are reliant on heavy promotion to doctors. In the United States disease awareness campaigns are sometimes run in conjunction with DTCA campaigns. One advertises the condition and the other the specific drug to treat it. The combined effect of the two campaigns is to ensure that individuals go to their doctor and request a specific drug for a condition they believe they may have. Or a company which has the only approved drug to treat a condition, can run a disease awareness campaign alone confident in the knowledge that if a doctor decides drug treatment is appropriate, they only have one option available.

Disease awareness campaigns are largely unregulated. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration states that "this kind of communication constitutes neither labeling nor advertising and is, therefore, not subject to the requirements for the disclosure of risk information and other requirements under the act." [1] However, the agency states that if it "determines that a supposed disease awareness communication impliedly identifies a particular drug or device, which may be the case when a communication relates to a drug or device that is the only drug or device in its diagnostic or therapeutic class or the only product manufactured by a company, then the agency may treat the communication as labeling or advertising under the act."

As the volume of DTCA advertising in the U.S. has grown, doubts have grown about its effectiveness. As a result drug companies are turning to other forms of targeted promotion that avoid the expense of television advertising. In February 2007 Centocor, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, unveiled a disease awareness 'documentary', Innerstate, that it scheduled to screen free of charge in cinemas around the country. The film was promoted in conjunction with a number of patient groups and disease awareness websites.

In Australia, an investigation by The Age found that an awareness campaign "run by the National Asthma Council was spearheaded by a cartoon dragon that was the registered trademark of a drug company used to promote one individual asthma medication" and that "a drug company used a public relations firm to set up an expert medical board to persuade people they needed hepatitis A and B vaccinations. The company was not interested in raising awareness about hepatitis C because it did not sell a vaccine for the disease." [2]

Other SourceWatch Resources


  1. Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, "Guidance for Industry: "Help-Seeking" and Other Disease Awareness Communications by or on Behalf of Drug and Device Firms", U.S. Food and Drug Administration, January 2004.
  2. Gary Hughes and Liz Minchin, "Drug firms fund disease awareness", The Age, December 13, 2003.
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