How #Pharma Targets Kids. Is It Education or Marketing? | Pharmaguy's Insights Into Drug Industry News |

The makers of medical products are finding subtle and sophisticated new ways to target kids — a demographic that can bring them hefty profits now, and could grow up to be loyal, even more lucrative, adult customers.


Drug and device companies have been trying to reach kids for decades, but a STAT examination has found that these efforts are taking new forms. Medical companies are bankrolling classroom lesson plans and comic books, hosting events with costumed characters, and promoting smartphone apps. It’s all aimed at teaching children and teens about certain health conditions — conditions for which there just happen to be treatments marketed by the companies sponsoring the outreach.


Companies frame their efforts as a service to kids. But they also bring benefits to the company: Children might ask their parents for a certain medicine just as they would a cereal brand. And kids are valuable customers. The percentage of American children and teens taking prescription drugs has stayed fairly steady over the past two decades, but insurance companies are forking over more money for their pills.


Some of the initiatives are raising alarm among critics who say they’re indistinguishable from marketing.


Here are some of the ways kids are interacting, directly or indirectly, with medical companies.


The worksheets prompt high schoolers to report on recent meningitis outbreaks on college campuses, or answer a true-false quiz about the bacterial disease. At the bottom of every page: “Check with your doctor about getting vaccinated,” beside a small Pfizer logo. They’re sponsored by the drug maker, which markets one of two vaccines protecting against meningitis B. (Sally Beatty, a Pfizer spokesperson, said the company works “with a wide range of healthcare providers and health authorities to raise awareness of the disease” and the new availability of vaccines.)


This comic book brought to you by Shire


The superheroes have names like “Skinderella” and “Gastro.” They hail from a planet shaped like the human body. And they’re the stars of a series of several dozen comic books aimed at explaining medical conditions like ADHD, type 1 diabetes, and growth hormone deficiency.


The books are produced by a company called Medikidz, which uses doctors to write and peer-review each edition. More than 3.5 million of the books have been distributed globally. Drug companies (as well as other organizations) often sponsor editions; the sponsor’s logo sometimes appears on the back cover.


Sponsors contribute funding and input on storylines. But Adam Schaeffer, a spokesperson for Medikidz, said that all the company’s content is “free of conflict of interest” and that there is never any mention of a specific medication.


In practice, the final product tends to be pretty nuanced. Take ADHD, a condition for which many in the medical community worry that kids are overmedicated. An ADHD-themed comic book — sponsored by Shire, which markets several ADHD drugs — does extol the potential benefits of medication, but it also talks about side effects and advocates therapy and counseling.


Pharma companies aren’t widely targeting children with drug ads. But a STAT review of ads for over-the-counter acne medicines show that their makers aren’t shy about explicitly targeting teens — particularly during prom season.


And that’s caught the attention of the FDA, enough so that the agency launched a study to understand how teens perceive risks and benefits from ads for acne and ADHD drugs [read “FDA To Study DTC Promotion Directed at Adolescents”;]. The agency is now analyzing the results and plans to announce what it learns, according to FDA spokeswoman Sarah Peddicord.


Then there are the many ads aimed at adults that get seen by kids anyway. Drug industry group PhRMA tells its members that ads “containing content that may be inappropriate for children should be placed in programs or publications that are reasonably expected to draw an audience of approximately 90 percent adults.”


That doesn’t always happen. A 2013 study found that children viewed TV ads for erectile dysfunction drugs Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra an estimated 30 billion times between 2006 and 2010 [“Pfizer Reneges on DTC Pledge: Afternoon Viagra Ads Appear on ESPN’;].


Health apps aren’t just collecting your info. They may be selling it, too


There are smartphone apps for more serious conditions, too. Drug maker Sanofi has released games aimed at kids with type 1 diabetes, a condition for which it markets treatments. There’s “Monster Manor,” which turns blood glucose monitoring into a game set in a creepy mansion, and “Mission T1D,” which gives players tips about managing their condition as they navigate through a school. [Listen to this podcast interview of Becky Reeve, Head of Professional Relations, Diabetes Franchise Sanofi UK & Ireland: “Pharma-Sponsored Mobile Health Gaming Apps: Sanofi's Mission T1D for Children with Type 1 Diabetes”;