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“Potty” Ads Work for Pharma Giant AbbVie

Photo by FIWH FISH | CC BY 2.0

“My number two does not look like a number two. I don’t know what to call it. Is there a number three?” So begins an ad in an aggressive AbbVie campaign to sell the disease of exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) in order to sell AbbVie’s drug for it. EPI is characterized by frequent diarrhea, gas, bloating and stomach pain says the campaign whose pay off line is “Don’t Keep a Lid on It.”  (Get it?) Creon, AbbVie’s drug to treat  the hitherto almost unknown disease of EPI is priced at over $500 a prescription.

“Two-thirds of patients (66 percent) have never even heard of EPI and even more (78 percent) are not aware of the symptoms,” says an AbbVie press release to create “awareness” among patients and doctors. Search results for EPI bring you to AbbVie’s “Identify EPI” sites replete with quizzes and videos of people Just Like You. Even if you have never heard of the disease or don’t have all of its symptoms, you are a candidate for our expensive drugs says the shameless campaign.

Another drug in AbbVie’s poop franchise is Humira, approved to treat moderate to severely active Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Despite Humira’s links to lymphoma and other malignancies, some fatal, infections including Legionella and Listeria, worsening and new onset congestive heart failure and fatal reactivation of hepatitis B virus, it has been the U.S.’s top selling drug. Who says advertising doesn’t work? Cynics might even ask if AbbVie makes drugs for the side effects of Humira.

Last month, Humira ads were so over the top, even those in its targeted demographic, those with inflammatory bowel diseases, were offended. Commenting on the TV ads which show a woman grimacing while she holds her stomach and a father wearing a pained expression as he heads to the bathroom, one person wrote, “Speaking as one who suffers from IBS…We don’t need insulting reminders in the name of selling the latest drug.” Others called the Humira ads “insulting,” “depressing” and “deplorable.”

“‘I thought I was managing my moderate to severe Crohn’s disease. Then I realized something was missing—me. I realized my symptoms were keeping me from being there. So I talked to my doctor,'” the ads say according to FiercePharma. “The music tempo shifts to upbeat and he is shown picking up his daughter from school, taking her for ice cream and generally enjoying life with her, as the Humira risk and benefit voiceover runs.”

To sell exocrine pancreatic insufficiency AbbVie has given it the snappy initials EPI––a contrivance which has also helped sell the conditions of ED (erectile dysfunction), Low T (low testosterone), SAD (season affective disorder) and HSDD (hypoactive sexual desire disorder) and the drugs to treat them. (Despite the catchy HSDD, initials for a “disease” characterized by women not wanting enough sex, the so called “Pink Viagra” is not selling.)

Selling obscure diseases to sell obscenely priced drugs is unethical for two reasons. It doesn’t just raise everyone’s health care costs and raise their taxes through government programs like Medicare, the VA and Tricare which often pay the freight. It makes a mockery of the entire U.S. health care system by aggressively seeking people who are not sick to “treat” while ignoring millions who really are sick but for whom there is no profit in treating.

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Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).

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