It’s just a bad week for the pharmaceutical industry. Early this week, news broke that GlaxoSmithKline would have to pay $3 billion for fraud, and now it’s being reported that Pfizer is dealing with false advertising claims. The Center of Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) threatened to sue Pfizer for making false claims on its multivitamin Centrum. These claims purport that the vitamins offer boosts to energy and immunity and promote health of the heart, colon, breast, eye and bone. According to the CSPI, Pfizer made claims that gave the impression that the vitamins would help in disease prevention, which are claims that supplement manufacturers can’t legally make. Instead of going to court over the issue, Pfizer and the CSPI decided to settle on the issue – Pfizer will change some things but leave others the same. Unfortunately, a settlement means that the only real loser is the consumer.
Like GlaxoSmithKline, this is an example of bad health communication – it is false, and it misleads the consumer. I’m a proponent of health literacy, and indeed my initial reaction to this story was to promote education to teach people how to read labels and analyze claims, but I wonder at what point do we draw the line for reasonable expectations of the consumer? To decide if the claim on a multivitamin label is true, one would need a working knowledge of the functions and effects of all the vitamins in a supplement to determine if the supplement’s claim is true. Needless to say, most people don’t possess this working knowledge. The only feasible alternative, when health information is this complex, is to expect full disclosure from the company that made the supplement and complete honesty in advertising.
And, as long as we’re being honest here, this type of advertising makes my skin crawl. You’re basically inviting people to play Russian roulette with their health by convincing them to use an unregulated supplement for a health problem rather than getting legit care.
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