I admit that I sometimes ask tough questions that takes my pharmaceutical friends a long time to answer. One such question involves GSK, PhRMA, and celebrities. My question is: Where’s the transparency? (For a partial answer, please read through to the end for a follow-up.)

I would not have asked that question if GSK had not raised the issue itself in its More Than Medicine Blog (see “Patients, Celebrities and Pharma“). In that post “Michael F” recommends the Sharing Miracles website sponsored by PhRMA’s Partnership for Prescription Assistance. It’s “a forum for people to relate their own stories of hope and survival,” according to Michael F.

On the site, you will read inspirational stories from Mike Ditka, Dominique Wilkins, Naomi Judd, Joey Pantoliano, etc.

Michael F also mentions that “GSK has joined with several notable personalities from entertainment and sports including a few who appear on the Sharing Miracles site…But these campaigns have to be handled appropriately–with full disclosure and transparency about our involvement [my emphasis] and in a way that adequately addresses the risks and benefits of medicines–or we risk losing the trust of the very people we’re trying to reach.”

But, when I went to the site, I could not find any disclosures relating to whether or not any of the celebrities were paid by PhRMA or any drug company or by GSK to tell their stories.

Did I miss something? Because I was looking for “full disclosure and transparency about [GSK’s] involvement” and couldn’t find it.

I posted that question to GSK’s More Than Medicine Blog and am awaiting an answer.

Followup: Well I didn’t have to wait for an answer as long as Adlai Stevenson did during the Cuban Missile crisis! Here’s the response from Michael F (see his comments here):

“Thanks John. Yes, we worked with – and compensated – Jerome Bettis and Mike Ditka in the past on GSK programs. I’m not familiar with the terms of their (or any of the other celebrities) involvement in the PhRMA/PPA site, but will contact PhRMA to learn more.”

Michael F did not mention Naomi Judd. In a previous post — Country Music Superstar Judds Corner the Pharma Celebrity Market! — I remarked that while Naomi Judd has a deal with PhRMA to appear on the Sharing Miracles site, her daughter, Wynonna Judd signed a deal with GSK to endorse Alli, the flagging weight loss OTC drug. Is this truly a coincidence or could it be that this is a mother-daughter/PhRMA-GSK collaborative deal? Mom could have brokered the deal by agreeing to appear on the PhRMA TV show if Wynonna got the alli gig, which may help her career.

Chris McDonald over at the Business of Ethics Blog picked up this story and says:

“And (as far as I can see) the site isn’t promoting any particular pharmaceutical (or even pharmaceuticals in general, really). But then again, who knows what messages are buried in there? And why would anyone spend money to produce a site like this if they didn’t think it promoted their interests? You would think that, in 2009, the pharmaceutical industry would be smart enough to know that it needs to be a little more transparent in its activities.”

PhRMA guidelines regarding use of celebs states: “Where a DTC [Direct-to-Consumer] television or print advertisement features a celebrity endorser, the endorsements should accurately reflect the opinions, findings, beliefs or experience of the endorser. Companies should maintain verification of the basis of any actual or implied endorsements made by the celebrity endorser in the DTC advertisement, including whether the endorser is or has been a user of the product if applicable.”

The current PhRMA guidelines do not require drug companies to reveal that celebrities are compensated for their appearance in product ads and there are no guidelines for use of celebrities in disease-awareness campaigns where no products are mentioned.

So, I would say that industry-endorsed guidelines are more about translucency than about transparency.