Several copies of the glossy, colourful magazine Me First clutter the tables in the waiting room of the Student Health Services Centre at the University of Western Ontario. The magazine provides information about sex and health for Canadian women.
It is funded entirely by a pharmaceutical company that sells birth control pills.
Janssen-Ortho Inc. awarded an unrestricted educational grant to Parkhurst Publishing Inc. in 1999 to produce Me First. Parkhurst specializes in “direct-to-consumer products and services.”
While the advertising of prescription drugs in Canada is illegal, pharmaceutical companies are permitted to sponsor the production of educational materials.
“Pharmaceutical companies have a vested interest in educational campaigns,” says Kathleen O’Grady, editor of A Friend Indeed, an advertisement-free health newsletter for women. “As companies that are measured by their profitability, it makes sense thatthey would want to sell their product to as many people as possible. That makes pharmaceutical companies as producers of educational material very problematic.”
O’Grady says pharmaceutical companies use medical educational materials to help promote their products and the need for them.
Today, 60, 000 copies of Me First are distributed to health centres across Canada. The fifteen-page publication devotes most of its content to the birth control pill.
Barbara Bourrier-Lacroix of the Canadian Women’s Health Network says herorganization is very familiar with the magazine. “While the information that[Me First] contains is medically accurate, as a librarian, I would notconsider ita strong independent source of information for answering health questions.Good consumer health information is not funded by companies with a vestedinterest.” The birth control pill is always discussed first amongst possible options.
A recent issue of Me First asks in a headline: “So why aren’t you using birth control?” The article goes on to explain all of the reasons why women should be using birth control and why the pill is a great method to choose.
Other articles advise women on the many advantages of the pill. Alternative methods of birth control are rarely discussed. “Birth control should be all about choice,” says Bourrier-Lacroix. “You need to have all of the information to make the right choice for your needs.”
Corporate editorial director of Me First, Elsie Wagner, says Janssen-Ortho has no influence over the content of the magazine. She adds, “Of course, because they are sponsoring it, they would like to have birth control pills in it.”
The editors of Me First want to broaden the content of the magazine and cover more areas affecting women’s health.
“Our original arrangement [with Janssen-Ortho] was to talk about birth control,” says Wagner. “We’re in the process of negotiating with the company to broaden the range and address more issues,” she says. “We want to make sure that the emphasis isn’t just on birth control.”
As part of the negotiations, Wagner advised Janssen-Ortho that it was not good for its corporate image to have information on the birth control pill dominate the magazine.
For the issue pictured here, Wagner removed a Tri-Cyclen logo from the magazine. The logo is for the brand of birth control that Janssen-Ortho produces. It was placed at the bottom of an ad for the magazine that reads, “It’s my body, it’s my choice, it’s Me First.”
Legally, Janssen-Ortho is not permitted to advertise its product within the magazine. Wagner felt the logo might pose legal problems.
There is no question, however, that Me First helps promote Janssen-Ortho and its brand of birth control.
A visitor to the Me First Website can click on a link to Janssen-Ortho and find the brand name for the pill they produce very easily. Not so for other brands.
Janssen-Ortho also uses Me First to help gain information about consumers and potential consumers of the birth control pill. A survey in the magazine and on the magazine’s Website asks women for information about their birth control choices.
The magazine staff forwards the collected information, without names of the respondents, to Janssen-Ortho. Janssen-Ortho can then use this information to help with their marketing initiatives.
An article from an earlier issue of Me First, “Beating the Period from Hell,” contains advice from a woman who advises using a “low-dose birth control pill, with 35 mcg of estrogen” — this is the same amount of estrogen that the pill Tri-Cyclen contains.
Low dose birth control pills can contain 20, 30, or 35 mcg of estrogen.
The Working Group on Women and Health Protection, representing more than twenty women’s and consumer groups across Canada, has criticized Health Canada for not doing enough to prevent direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs.
The group wants to see stricter guidelines to prevent pharmaceutical companies from advertising drugs and exerting influence on educational materials distributed to Canadian women.
But as long as a publication does not provide a product’s name, it is not violating the guidelines set out by the Food and Drug Act in regard to drug advertising, says Health Canada spokesperson Ryan Baker.
Until Health Canada takes action to prevent pharmaceutical companies from funding medical education materials for doctors and patients, says Kathleen O’Grady, it will be difficult to ensure that health information is balanced. “Pharmaceutical involvement in educational campaigns is rampant,” she says.
If negotiations with Janssen-Ortho are successful, Wagner says Me First will be decreasing the amount of attention given to birth control pills for its next issue.
The magazine will still have to disclose Janssen-Ortho as the sponsor.
Wagner will also be reviewing the link on the Me First Website which makes a direct connection between the sponsor of the magazine and the product it endorses.