Beware of celebrities hawking drugs

By Medicine Men

Over the past half-century, we’ve learned that whenever we hear celebrities and drugs mentioned in the same sentence, it usually involves either an arrest or somebody emerging triumphantly from rehab (again). But now we set celebrities up on pedestals and take their medical advice. Stars now shill for items that require prescriptions.

But this may not be that great an idea for your health.

In one sense, there’s nothing new about a nexus between celebrities and medicine. Two traditional nexuses, actually. One involves direct fund-raising for research and treatment such as Jerry Lewis and his muscular-dystrophy telethons, or the late Danny Thomas and St. Jude’s Hospital for Children. Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, has used his fame to urge increased research funding and awareness. Former “Superman” star Christopher Reeve, paralyzed in a horseback-riding accident, has done similar work. Both have testified before Congress.

The other nexus comes via advertising. In the beginning, the marketing of disease awareness, treatment and prevention stayed in the realm of the ad agency that donated its efforts – known as public service advertising. We still see this today, as when the aforementioned celebrities turn out to advance their goals. It’s worthy stuff.

Nor do we really suffer much heartburn with celebrity endorsements of over-the-counter medicines. They’ve been around for ages, and we rather enjoy that old Robert Young-Marcus Welby pitch – “I’m not a doctor, I just play one on TV.” And who can forget those commercials with June Allyson peddling adult diapers? Clearly a plus for the corpus of Western civilization.

But over the past few years there has emerged a new and troubling trend of celebrities endorsing prescription products. There’s skating star Dorothy Hamill and Vioxx. B.B. King and Wilford Brimley have both become spokesmen for diabetes products. “Frasier’s” Kelsey Grammer holds forth on irritable bowel syndrome. (The nearly bald actor also does commercials for dandruff shampoo, but that’s for a future story on the “tacky things celebrities will do to make more money than they need.”)

Speaking of benefits to Western civ, let’s not forget Bob Dole, hawking the merits of Viagra.

But now comes a strange hybrid: celebrity spokespersons both hawking their wares and dispensing free medical advice. It’s one thing for Messrs. King and Bromley to urge diabetics to eat right and check their blood sugar often. But another when Rob Lowe of NBC’s “West Wing” contracts with Amgen to headline a public-relations campaign about febrile neutropenia (chemotherapy patients prone to lingering infections). The drug, Neulasta, received approval in January 2002 for neutropenia treatment. His dad did receive chemotherapy and Lowe has a contract estimated around $1 million, according to a Wall Street Journal story.

Noah Wylie – NBC’s “E.R.” – was signed to speak out about melanoma after an agent that specializes in matching stars to drug manufacturers saw him advising a patient in his role as resident John Carter. He went on to appear on the Today Show and Entertainment Tonight.

Specifically, why have pharmaceutical manufacturers, who traditionally confined their advertising to the health-care profession (ads in journals, free samples, etc.) gone Hollywood? In one word: Managed Care. As HMOs and insurance companies began tightening their formularies to the point where doctors couldn’t even mention certain drugs, the pharmaceutical companies made a decision to go directly to the ultimate consumer. These ads don’t tell you to rush right out and buy the product – they tell you to “ask your doctor.”

Unfortunately, celebrity endorsements also affect health attitudes and expectations. That’s why they get the big bucks. But it’s one thing to buy the shoes and then not turn into the next Michael Jordan, and quite another to demand a cancer drug because some actor endorses it, then die.

What is scary is that we turn to television for our medical information. So how does even the educated viewer sort it out? Who’s getting paid and who’s stumping for a cause they really believe in? Most ads and entertainment talk shows do not include disclosures about financial remuneration.

PR persons tell us that it’s tough to get celebrities to do legitimate public-service campaigns for good, non-profit causes because they all expect the million-dollar check to open their mouths. There are agencies that specialize in this practice.

Congress may be willing to listen to the medical testimony of celebrities, but viewers should not. The ultimate medication decisions should be made by you – the patient – along with a professional you trust.