Monday, November 11, 2013

Sockpuppets, astroturfing and anti-stigma campaigns

Vocabulary words for today: Sockpuppet, Astroturfing 
Help me add more search words to my limited search vocabulary. Pharma's public relations teams are always finding new ways to convince the public that demand for its products is grassroots. Anti-stigma campaigns are one example. In the 1990s Eli Lilly channeled money through the The World Psychiatric Association and NAMI to launch an anti-stigma campaign. The "crowdfunding" concept today is supposed to be grassroots fundraising, but there is a huge potential for abuse, e.g. astroturfing fake donations. 

Pharmaceutical Industry Agenda Setting in Mental Health Policies
Richard Gosden and Sharon Beder

Citation: Richard Gosden and Sharon Beder, 'Pharmaceutical Industry Agenda Setting in Mental Health Policies', Ethical Human Sciences and Services 3(3) Fall/Winter 2001, pp. 147-159.

The use of sophisticated public relations techniques for setting political agendas has become a standard practice in most advanced democracies. The consequences are slowly becoming apparent. The system of representative democracy is being reshaped into a new kind of "managed corporatocracy" in which public opinion and government policy are custom-made products that can be shaped, packaged and sold by skilled public relations experts. 

Setting the Agenda for Policy on Schizophrenia
An extended campaign to set the policy making agenda in regard to schizophrenia offers a particularly good illustration of how these tactics work. All of the pharmaceutical companies involved in this agenda setting campaign have introduced new, atypical neuroleptic drugs for schizophrenia treatment onto the market over the past decade. These new drugs had been developed for two main reasons: 1) patents for the older generation of drugs were expiring and cheap generics were coming onto the market; and 2) the older generation of schizophrenia drugs had fallen into disrepute for being both ineffective and dangerous. However, in introducing the new drugs the pharmaceutical companies were confronted by two difficult public relations problems: (a) the new drugs are many times more expensive than the older drugs and, (b) according to critics, they are not any more effective or safer than the old drugs they replace. (Breggin and Cohen, 1999, pp. 76-82).

The pharmaceutical companies wanted to maximize their profits in what appeared to be a potentially critical environment and a tight market. They decided the best approach would be to find ways to expand the size of the market. Hitherto the market for schizophrenia drugs had been restricted by diagnostic conventions, on the one hand, and civil liberties protections on the other. Until recently diagnostic conventions generally limited the recognition of schizophrenia, and therefore the application of neuroleptic drug treatment, to symptoms which indicate psychosis. The agenda setters determined to expand the market by breaking this convention and promoting the concept of an additional pre-psychotic phase of schizophrenia which requires preventive treatment with their new drugs. To further expand the market they also decided to wage campaigns to weaken civil liberties protections and thereby increase the number of people who could be treated involuntarily.

The overall solution was the development of a two-fold public relations campaign that is still in progress. The first part involves harnessing support groups for relatives of people suffering from schizophrenia as the driving force for an advocacy coalition. This has been achieved by carefully focussed funding of these organizations. (Gosden, 2001, pp. 94-97). Once they were made dependent on drug company ‘sponsorship’ they could then be used as public relations front-groups to assist with planting stories in the media about the efficacy and safety of the new drugs and about claims that schizophrenia has supposedly been scientifically proven to be a brain disease requiring urgent drug treatment at the earliest signs. A ready example of this practice can found at (, 2001a) which purports to be "A Not-for-Profit Information, Support and Education Center" representing consumers. However, acknowledges on its web site that it is funded by Janssen Pharmaceuticals. (, 2001b). The slant on schizophrenia being promoted by drug company-funded organisations like is intended to impact on governments as expressions of public interest advocacy and to position the new drugs as preferred methods of treatment by government mental health services. 

An aspect of the campaign involves funding selected psychiatric researchers to promote the doubtful belief that schizophrenia must be detected and treated in a pre-psychotic stage to avoid brain deterioration. (Gosden, 2001, pp. 224-247). This line of argument has the potential to vastly expand the market for schizophrenia drugs and has already led to the development in Australia of government-sponsored preventive treatment programs for schizophrenia, which utilize the new drugs.

A key element of the PR strategy involves funding from the drug company Eli Lilly being channeled through both the World Psychiatric Association (Rosen et al. 2000) and NAMI (Silverstein, 1999; Oaks, 2000, p. 14) to mount an anti-stigma campaign. The thrust of the anti-stigma campaign is to advocate for the elimination of discrimination against people diagnosed with schizophrenia, so long as they are taking medication.

Meanwhile, in what appears to be a coordinated strategy, the Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC), which was originally established as branch of NAMI, has been feeding a very different, but complimentary, line to the media and the public about the dangerousness of untreated schizophrenia. This line involves associating untreated schizophrenia with news stories about violent behavior (Torrey & Zdanowicz, 1999, p. 27A) and promoting wild hyperbole about the murderous intentions of untreated schizophrenics: "Violent episodes by individuals with untreated schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have risen dramatically, now accounting for an estimated 1,000 homicides annually in the United States" (Treatment Advocacy Center, 2001a). This approach is intended to send an agenda setting spin in the opposite direction by scaring the public and impacting on governments as a law and order imperative. The policy intention with this counter spin is to weaken civil liberties protections in mental health laws in order to increase the number of people eligible for involuntary treatment. 

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