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FTC urged to probe online pharma marketing

Advocacy groups have requested the US Federal Trade Commission investigate the pharma industry's social media marketing practices

A coalition of prominent advocacy groups has filed a complaint with the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) urging the government agency to investigate the pharmaceutical industry's social media marketing practices.

"Much of the online health marketing system has been deliberately structured to collect personal information and other data on consumers, including through the use of free e-newsletters on specific medical concerns; discounts for prescription drugs and services; and via the growing number of other online data profiling techniques," the coalition asserts.

The 144-page complaint was filed by the Center for Digital Democracy, US PIRG, Consumer Watchdog, and the World Privacy Forum. The document cites the actions of a number of pharmaceutical companies in outlining the practices that the groups find objectionable, but the firms actually named in the complaint are new-media companies such as Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL and WebMD.

The complaint was also sent to US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner Margaret Hamburg and to members of Congress.  The coalition is calling on the FDA to hold off on issuing its much-anticipated guidelines on social media until an FTC investigation is completed, so that the findings can be incorporated into the guidelines.

The complaint suggests that the FTC and FDA work together to develop a set of policies on behavioral targeting, data collection, and other digital techniques as they relate to the marketing of drugs.

The complaint objects to practices such as data mining; the use of unbranded websites to support branded products; and what the groups perceive as a lack of separation between editorial content and promotional material in online pharma content.

In addition to asking the FTC to look into pharma's online interactions with consumers, the complaint urges an investigation into "e-detailing" to physicians, nurses and other health professionals.

The complaint urges the FTC to undertake a major investigation, including, among many other components, assessing the extent of consumer information collected through pharma websites, social networks, online video sites, and other interactive means; investigating whether there is a violation of FTC rules when bloggers fail to disclose that they are paid or sponsored by pharmaceutical companies; and investigating the use of "unbranded" sites funded by pharmaceutical companies.

24th November 2010

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