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Would you look for prescription drug advice on Facebook? Apparently some people do, and the Food and Drug Administration is starting to take notice. The FDA has sent a warning letter to drugmaker Novartis for the way it's been using Facebook to promote a cancer drug. And Novartis isn't alone. Drug companies have embraced social networking.
As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, critics of the industry say the FDA is responding too slowly.
MARTIN KASTE: Novartis's sin, according to the FDA, was the misuse of a widget. On the company's website for the leukemia drug Tasigna, it had one of those share widgets: you click on it to promote the drug to your Facebook friends.
The problem, says the FDA's Marci Kiester, is that the widget didn't share enough information.
Ms. MARCI KIESTER (Food and Drug Administration): If they're presenting efficacy claims, then there should be a balanced presentation of risks that is reasonably comparable to those benefits.
KASTE: That's FDA-speak for the fact that the widget didn't give the downside. It didn't include that litany of side-effects and warnings that you'd see on a drug ad on TV.
Novartis wouldn't give an interview, but it has taken down the share widget for now. The company still wants to promote its drugs through social media. In an email, Novartis tells NPR, quote, we will continue to have active discussions with regulatory authorities on the appropriate ways to use online and social channels.
Mr. JEFF CHESTER (Center for Digital Democracy): Pharmaceutical and health marketers have been chomping at the digital bit, so to speak.
KASTE: Jeff Chester runs the Center for Digital Democracy, an organization that's been trying to stiffen the FDA's spine on this issue. He says the agency has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to drug companies' use of the social media.
Mr. CHESTER: Marketers are deliberately creating campaigns and use what they call digital-buzz techniques, B-U-Z-Z.
KASTE: The digital buzz techniques go way beyond Facebook. Some drug companies have set up support group websites for certain diseases. For an example, take a look at ShareYourPain.com, a support site for people suffering from chronic pain from cancer. It's only at the bottom of the home page, in small type, that you see the name of the page's sponsor: drugmaker Cephalon.
Other companies are creating buzz on YouTube.
(Soundbite of YouTube video)
Unidentified Man #1: Oh, dear, not again? What have I done to send him into submission? Tight pants? The accident?
KASTE: This droll little cartoon is a promotion for the erectile dysfunction drug Levitra. But you'd have to follow another link before that becomes apparent. This, too, is a form of social marketing, says Jeff Chester, because the company is counting on you to forward the funny video. He says that's the whole idea.
Mr. CHESTER: The key to viral, peer-to-peer marketing is to in fact send a message to your friends that I like this drug. It's not Novartis sending you this widget. I'm sending you this information. I've endorsed it.
KASTE: Viral marketing may be okay for selling sneakers, Chester says, but when it's used to promote prescription drugs, he believes it can be dangerous.
Drug companies see things a little differently. Yes, they say, there are risks. But they also like to talk about how social media can empower patients, or e-patients, as they're sometimes called. At an FDA hearing last year, Jeff Francer, of the trade group PhRMA, asked regulators to facilitate drugmakers' responsible use of social media.
Mr. JEFF FRACER (PhRMA): Taking advantage of the same technologies that the FDA and the White House use, including blogs, video, search and social networking sites such as Twitter.
KASTE: The FDA is thinking about it. A big issue is the one-click question: Is it enough for widgets and other online devices to make a drug's downside information available one click away? The FDA hopes to have the first rules on that by the end of the year.
Martin Kaste, NPR News.
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