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ASTROTURFING: Why the information on patient group sites can be suspect

Doug | 26.08.2006 07:01

There are plenty of tactics that drug companies employ in order to increase sales.

Getting to doctors is easy enough: 'educational' trips to the Caribbean, sponsored staff canteens, payment for 'research projects' by putting patients onto new and untried drugs, and funding whole careers are just a few gambits they use.

But how to get to the patient directly? Short of straight advertising, one of the best techniques is known as 'astroturfing'. This involves funding patient groups that, in turn, start promoting the pro-drug message to unwitting members who just want unbiased information on their condition.

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has just been caught out 'astroturfing' a patients group called Ekbom Support Group, which helps advise people with restless legs syndrome.

GSK's advertising included a link through to the group's website, which described the company's drug ropinirole as an effective treatment for the problem.

Ropinirole was developed by GSK as an anti-Parkinson's drug, but is now marketed for restless legs syndrome under the brand name of Adartrel.

GSK was wrong to place the advertisements in the first place because they appeared eight months before the drug was approved. The drug company had also supported the Ekbom Support Group.

The Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority, which oversees drug advertising in the UK, ruled that GSK "was, in effect, directing patients to a website that contained misleading messages about the safety of ropinirole, which might indirectly encourage patients to ask their doctors to prescribe it."