Pharma gets social: US FDA in Ebola social media crackdown

This month, Daniel Ghinn turns the spotlight on companies claiming to sell ‘cures’ for Ebola via social media channels and looks at how the US FDA is responding.

“This is to advise you that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reviewed websites and social media accounts (e.g. … Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube) used to promote your … products in August 2014.”

These are the opening lines of FDA warning letters received by three companies last month and indicate an increasing level of surveillance of social media channels by the FDA. In these particular cases, the warnings also included concern over the promotion of products alleged to prevent or cure Ebola.

“Your consultants promote many of your … products for conditions such as, but not limited to, viral infections (including Ebola)… that are not amenable to self-diagnosis and treatment by individuals who are not medical practitioners”, said the FDA in its letter to dōTERRA, which, along with Young Living and Natural Solutions Foundation, produces essential oils and alternative therapies that are being marketed as drugs, according to the FDA letters.

In a clarifying statement (filed under ‘Counterterrorism and Emerging Threats’ on the FDA website), the FDA pointed out that: “Unfortunately, during outbreak situations, fraudulent products claiming to prevent, treat or cure a disease almost always appear. The FDA monitors for fraudulent products and false product claims related to the Ebola virus and takes appropriate action to protect consumers. There are no approved treatments for Ebola available for purchase on the Internet.”

Promoting claims on YouTube

The letter to Natural Solutions Foundation cites a YouTube video embedded on the company’s home page entitled “URGENT MESSAGE to EBOLA-STRICKEN NATIONS’ HEADS OF STATE”, in which the Foundation’s Medical Director, Dr Rima Leibo makes the claim that “As of now it is said that there is no treatment against Ebola, and that is not true. In fact there is a well-known, well characterised, nutrient … [I]t does kill every pathogen against which it has been tested, worldwide, without exception. There is no other effective solution … [It] is unlimited in its effectiveness … [and is a] safe, non-toxic … and available solution against Ebola and every other communicable disease …”

The video is no longer embedded on the company’s website home page but remains on YouTube and has been widely shared in other social media platforms.

Warning: Be careful what you pin!

The letters to Young Living and dōTERRA included what I believe is the FDA’s first ever warning relating directly to the use of Pinterest, which is significant given the increasing adoption of the channel by pharmaceutical companies.

Pinterest is an image-sharing social media platform in which users ‘pin’ images that they like to their profiles in order to share them with others, grouping images together on themed ‘boards’.

“The FDA says Pinterest is being used to make claims that establish the intended use of products”

The FDA says Pinterest is being used to make claims that establish the intended use of products, through statements such as ‘Treat heart disease naturally’, ‘Lupus gone’ and ‘Try me for … Arteriosclerosis … Hypertension … Cancer … Insomnia’.

Representing the company?

The FDA letters cited social media activity carried out not only by the companies directly, but also by their consultants who sell products to consumers.

“Consumers interested in your … products are then redirected by your consultants to your website”, states the FDA in one letter. “… there are drug claims being made by your consultants for a wide range of your … products.”

It adds: “It is your responsibility to ensure that all of your products are in compliance with all requirements of the Act and federal regulations.”

Several links to Pinterest pins and boards managed by consultants representing the companies were referenced in the FDA letter, all of which have since been taken down and are no longer visible.

Nothing changes for pharma and social media

Ultimately, all this is simply another reminder that social media does not change the rules of engagement. Being on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest does not make it acceptable to publish unapproved claims or promote products in ways not allowed outside social media. As I have said before, the FDA’s long-awaited social media guidance, issued in June this year, simply confirms that pharma is free to continue to innovate and the regulatory requirements that exist outside social media still apply online.

About the author:

Daniel Ghinn is CEO of online market research specialist Creation Healthcare, which is currently studying how healthcare professionals worldwide are responding to the current Ebola crisis through their conversations in social media. He tweets at @EngagementStrat.

Have your say: To what extent will the FDA’s scrutiny of social media channels dissuade false claims about therapies?

Daniel’s next article will be published in November.

Read more from Daniel Ghinn’s series:

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