The term ’lifestyle drugs’ means everything and nothing. Like
’political correctness’ or ’spin doctoring’ its use can cause confusion
and offence, especially to manufacturers, who are concerned that serious
products become trivialised by being labelled ’lifestyle’. Yet,
misleading though the term often is, it goes some way towards describing
what is a relatively modern phenomenon and includes some already famous
brands - despite a ban on advertising prescription-only drugs direct to
the consumer. Brands like Viagra, which is in talks with agencies about
a pan-European ad campaign, are unlikely to want to throw away that
Though they belong to different clinical areas, the anti-impotence drug,
Viagra; the depression treatment, Prozac; the obesity compound, Xenical;
the hair restorer, Propecia; and Seroxat, which is used to treat
depression and social phobias, are all examples of ’lifestyle drugs’.
They are also all affected by the reluctance of the cash-strapped NHS to
pay for their prescription. The argument runs that these products are
more to do with improving the quality of life than a necessity for
treating disease - though in some clinical fields that assertion is open
to dispute. As such, they might better be paid for by the consumer.
The difficulty of the situation is that these drugs are powerful both in
their medical effects and their impact on the public consciousness.
As people are taking ever greater responsibility for their own health,
they are demanding more information on products and expect access to
But there’s a reason why these drugs are only available on
David Wilson, head of media at Pfizer, which produces Viagra, says:
’We’ve suffered this stigma of Viagra being a lifestyle drug. But it’s a
serious treatment for a serious condition that often masks other serious
conditions. Patients should receive a full check-up and diagnosis from
doctors before taking it.’
Under UK and European Community regulations, prescription drugs cannot
be promoted direct to the consumer. This includes a ban on DTC
advertisements that carry brand names. Under the Medicines (Advertising)
Regulations of 1993, it is a criminal offence for any person to issue an
advertisement to the public ’which is likely to lead to the use of’ a
medicine supplied on prescription only. However, health education,
corporate advertising, editorial comment, information to the media,
financial information and opinions of independent third parties are all
legal, provided they are genuine and do not amount to disguised
That is why much of the communications activity in the market is
currently driven by PR. The question is, how long is this
The pressure on NHS budgets and public demand for drugs they have heard
about is sure to lead to change within the next five years. In Germany,
for example, there is an A-D grading system for drugs, where A
acknowledges 100 per cent clinical need, and the state pays, and D means
that if the patient wants it, they have to pay for it.
Martin Godfrey, European managing director for health and pharmaceutical
practices at Hill and Knowlton, says: ’As that begins to happen the next
stage is DTC promotion and advertising. If the public is paying they
need to know about it.’
In the US, where DTC promotion is legal, drugs companies spend well over
dollars 1 billion a year advertising prescription medicines to the
public. Should restrictions on the advertising of lifestyle products be
lifted in Europe, it would certainly be a boon for ad agencies.
The Proprietary Association of Great Britain, the body that represents
medicines available over-the-counter without a prescription, feels that
many lifestyle drugs should be available through pharmacists once their
safety and efficacy has been proved. Sheila Kelly, executive director of
PAGB, says: ’Once you’ve got one prescription you should be able to go
and get it from the pharmacist. People now have the ability to
self-manage. For a couple of years they should be prescribed drugs so
that the adverse reactions profile can be established, but their natural
home is OTC.’
Whether this happens or not, the near certainty is that some form of DTC
communication is coming and brand owners need to adapt. Julie Hayward,
marketing services director of PTK Healthcare, says: ’The prescription
side of the business has a lot to learn about communications to the
Godfrey adds: ’Pharmaceutical companies will need to create stronger
brands. It will widen the playing field, you will find FMCG experts
coming into the market.’ A few years from now, maybe there will be many
brands with the potency of Viagra.
FIVE PRODUCTS WITH THE LIFESTYLE LABEL
Viagra Pfizer’s little blue pill has entered popular culture as the
object of a million jokes. But the serious condition it is used to treat
- erectile dysfunction - is no laughing matter to its sufferers. Paling
Walters Targis is the ad agency, Ruder Finn and Bullet Communications
handles its PR.
Xenical Obesity treatment from Roche Products. McCann Healthcare handles
Xenical’s advertising, Hill and Knowlton the PR.
Prozac Eli Lilly’s product for depression is almost as high profile as
Viagra. Cohn & Wolfe handles its PR.
Propecia Baldness treatment from Merck.
Seroxat Marketers at SmithKline Beecham cringe whenever this product is
referred to as a treatment for ’shyness’, pointing out that this
description belittles serious conditions such as social anxiety disorder
and panic attacks. Shire Hall handles the PR.