Big Pharma greed: free drugs are being pushed on the Internet to hook consumers

Thursday, December 10, 2009 by: S. L. Baker, features writer
Tags: Big Pharma, online advertising, health news

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(NaturalNews) If you have a common condition like high cholesterol or asthma, you'll probably surf the Internet for info -- and odds are you'll be directed to a slick Big Pharma-sponsored Web homepage. It will appear to be oh-so-helpful. In fact, the drug company just can't wait to offer you free samples or a one-time discount on a top-selling prescription medication. New research concludes, however, this is not only a way to hawk (and hook people on) expensive prescription meds they don't even necessarily need but it's also a way to collect personal information about you so you can be targeted for more drug sales.

The study, recently published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, shows how Big Pharma's marketing tactics can be misleading and downright tricky. The drug company-backed web sites contain all sorts of positive hype about the drugs being pushed, including testimonials from patients who appear glowing with good health and enthusiastic words for their prescription fix. But what about risks, efficacy and side effects? Don't bother looking too close for that information.

The research team, headed by Dr. William G. Weppner of the University of Washington (UW) Department of Medicine and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Boise, Idaho, found that hard facts -- quantitative information on the medication's indications for use, effectiveness and risks -- are rarely mentioned. The omission is so glaring that the researchers are calling for additional studies to determine if Big Pharma's free offers are actually trying to distract or divert patients from reading risk information.

What's more, the freebie drug offers may be pushing people to take medications they don't need. Patients surfing the web typically find a web site with a list of symptoms and information about a drug that will supposedly treat their health problems -- all they have to do is download and print the coupon or voucher on the web site, take it to a doctor to obtain a prescription and then give the coupon and prescription to a pharmacist. The researchers cited evidence that many physicians' decisions to prescribe specific drugs are influenced by patient requests based on direct-to-consumer advertisements and by the availability of free samples. In fact, the study found evidence that the freebie offers have a huge impact on exactly what drugs are being prescribed. Out of 50 of the most frequently prescribed medications, more than half have Internet free sample offers.

And just how "free" are the Internet offered drug samples? Not very. The study concluded that people who take the drug companies up on these deals will have to pay to keep taking the shilled brand-name medication -- and in most cases there's no low-cost generic equivalent. "Many of these discounts are aimed at co-pays, which could increase costs to consumers via health insurance premiums," Dr. Weppner said in a statement to the press.

The study calculated that the average annual retail cost for the drugs being pushed with free samples was $1,559, with a range of $84 to $5,668. The total yearly value of the free samples for these medications had an average of $86 and the total yearly value of the discounts offered by Big Pharma-sponsored web sites had a mean of $75, with a range of $5 to $300. In other words, the coupon or voucher covered only about 5 percent of the expensive yearly bill for drugs that were often only prescribed in the first place because people took the free coupon to their doctors.

And if you think these revelations about Big Pharma's questionable marketing-to-consumers-directly tactics couldn't get any worse in terms of greed or questionable ethics, there's even more to this story. The new study revealed that the pharmaceutical industry is gathering personal information on consumers with their freebie drug racket.

To obtain the free offers, 71 percent of the web sites require a host of personal information including e-mail and/or postal addresses, and medical information such as symptoms, diagnoses, current medical treatments and insurance status. "Collection of such information may compromise patient privacy if made accessible to unauthorized users," the researchers noted. "An interesting feature of this marketing strategy is its potential role as a means in which Web users are coerced to provide consumer information that unwittingly drives the content of the Web sites they view. Such a new version of targeted direct-to-consumer advertising could automatically gather information from drug-offer forms, patient searches, previously visited web sites or even text from e-mail. The strategy would then provide advertising links to web pages offering discounted or free coupons for drugs."

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