As competition to treat people for HIV has hotted up, pharmaceutical companies have started dumping on one another. Using innuendo and not-quite-stated factoids, they are beginning to imply that the rival camp has something to hide (something they’ve no doubt learned from political campaigns). Those other drugs are toxic, discolouring, inconvenient. Activist groups and HIV bloggers such as Peropheries are upset, but I wonder if Big Pharma might actually be doing us a favour.
I first saw the loo ad above looming down at me in a huge, back-lit poster form while I was wandering around New York one evening recently. It’s from Bristol Myers Sqibb — they make Reyataz, an antiretorviral which apparently doesn’t send you to the loo every two seconds. Sadly not true of Kaletra, made by rival Abbot Laboratories. Though this ad doesn’t actually point the finger, it’s a pretty good start as smear campaigns go. This and other examples have been picked up in a story by The Wall Street Journal, relayed by the always helpful Kaiser Family Foundation.
Treatment activism groups are upset because they think negative advertising might discourage infected people from taking their meds at all. That seems to me unlikely — the runs is an unpleasant but relatively small price to pay for an AIDS-free life. I do think we have a right to be upset about what these cut-throat smear campaigns tell us about what the marketing gurus think is acceptable corporate behaviour in our hyper-capitalist world. But I also think that the relentlessly upbeat advertising that has been the norm for HIV meds for years now might be just as damaging. The message: “Don’t worry if you get HIV, you can still go rock-climbing with your friends at the weekends”, has surely contributed to the “so what?” attitude that has led to rising risk behaviour and HIV rates among young gay men in many places. Perhaps inadvertently, Big Pharma is now sending a different message: being on HIV meds for the rest of your life may not be such a painless thing after all. As I said, I don’t think these ads are going to discourage people who are already infected from taking their meds. But they might just help on the prevention front, by signaling to uninfected people that it’s perhaps worth making a bit of an effort to stay that way.