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Disease mongering and low testosterone in men: the tale of two regulatory failures

Agnes I Vitry and Barbara Mintzes
Med J Aust 2012; 196 (10): 619-621. || doi: 10.5694/mja11.11299

Disease-awareness campaigns on low testosterone and ageing highlight the need for changes to regulations

Currently, direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription-only medicines is legal in only two industrialised countries, the United States and New Zealand. However, in countries where direct-to-consumer advertising is not allowed, including Australia, Canada and countries in the European Union, pharmaceutical companies have found ways to sidestep this prohibition through intensive use of the internet, social media and print and broadcast media — for example, by running “help-seeking” or “disease-awareness” campaigns.1 These unbranded promotional campaigns feature a condition treated by the manufacturer’s product, and often encourage viewers or readers to ask their doctor about a newly available treatment. However, there are many examples of drug company-funded disease-awareness campaigns that exaggerate disease risks and prevalence, and misrepresent treatment effectiveness.2 Aspects of ordinary life (such as menopause or unhappiness) are “medicalised”, and conditions that are often mild (such as irritable bowel syndrome and restless legs syndrome) are portrayed as serious illnesses. Disease-awareness campaigns can affect consultation and prescribing rates, with potential negative effects on public health if they encourage inaccurate health beliefs and incite consumers to request inappropriate treatments from health care providers.3,4

  • Agnes I Vitry1
  • Barbara Mintzes2

  • 1 Quality Use of Medicines and Pharmacy Practice Research Centre, Sansom Institute for Health Research, University of South Australia, Adelaide, SA.
  • 2 Department of Anesthesiology, Pharmacology and Therapeutics, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Correspondence: agnes.vitry@unisa.edu.au

Acknowledgements: 

We thank Robyn Clothier, who sent the complaint to Medicines Australia, and all people who supported the complaint to Health Canada.

Competing interests:

We are both members of Healthy Skepticism (http://www. healthyskepticism.org) and Health Action International (http://www.haiweb.org) — organisations that aim to defend consumers and health professionals from misleading and harmful pharmaceutical marketing.

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