Respectful Insolence

Because of my stands against dubious medical “therapies” and outright quackery and for science- and evidence-based medicine, I have been the frequent target of what I’ve come to call the “pharma shill gambit.” It’s a pretty stupid and common ad hominem attack in which the attacker, virtually always an advocate of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) tries to smear those of us who argue against pseudoscience and for science-based medicine as being hopelessly in the pocket of big pharma to the point where we make the statements we do because we’re “shills” for the drug companies. Personally, although I did receive a couple of payments back in the mid-1990s for an invention my thesis advisor and I came up with, nothing ever came of it. Consequently, since then I’ve been so utterly free from pharma filthy lucre that when I have to state my disclosures at talks I frequently joke that I have no disclosures because no drug company finds my research sufficiently interesting or potentially profitable to bother with it. Not that that stops the woo-friendly trolls who sometimes come through here shouting “pharma shill”!

Well, look who’s a shill for big pharma now. No, it’s not any of the obvious targets. In fact, it’s one of Oprah Winfrey’s favorite guests. It all involves a company called RealAge, which offers an online quiz and calculates your “real age” based on your demographic factors, habits, and health history:

According to RealAge, more than 27 million people have taken the test, which asks 150 or so questions about lifestyle and family history to assign a “biological age,” how young or old your habits make you. Then, RealAge makes recommendations on how to get “younger,” like taking multivitamins, eating breakfast and flossing your teeth. Nine million of those people have signed up to become RealAge members.

But while RealAge promotes better living through nonmedical solutions, the site makes its money by selling better living through drugs.

Pharmaceutical companies pay RealAge to compile test results of RealAge members and send them marketing messages by e-mail. The drug companies can even use RealAge answers to find people who show symptoms of a disease — and begin sending them messages about it even before the people have received a diagnosis from their doctors.

While few people would fill out a detailed questionnaire about their health and hand it over to a drug company looking for suggestions for new medications, that is essentially what RealAge is doing.

Well, well, well, well, well. Isn’t that interesting? “America’s Doctor,” friend to Oprah, and that die-hard supporter of CAM and “integrative medicine” who recently testified in front of Senator Tom Harkin’s committee about how the U.S. needs to “integrate” more woo into its medicine is shilling for a company that gathers health care information about its members from its surveys and serves as a middle man for the targeted distribution of big pharma advertisements designed to sell them the latest and greatest pill! His picture is even right there on the front page of the RealAge website! Moreover, RealAge appears to be playing it–shall we say?–coy when it comes to informing its members about its relationship with big pharma:

Whether they are attracted by Dr. Oz’s appeal or by the ads all over the Internet for the test, people come to the site, then provide an e-mail address to take it. They are asked throughout the test if they would like a free RealAge membership. If people answer yes to any of the prompts, they become RealAge members, and their test results go into a marketing database.

RealAge allows drug companies to send e-mail messages based on those test results. It acts as a clearinghouse for drug companies, including Pfizer, Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline, allowing them to use almost any combination of answers from the test to find people to market to, including whether someone is taking antidepressants, how sexually active they are and even if their marriage is happy.

RealAge sends the selected recipients a series of e-mail messages about a condition they might have, usually sponsored by a drug company that sells a medication for that condition.

Here’s more:

RealAge’s privacy policy does not specifically address the firm’s relationship with drug companies, but does state, in part, “we will share your personal data with third parties to fulfill the services that you have asked us to provide to you,” and it adds test results to its database only when respondents become RealAge members. Some critics, however, charge that consumers do not have enough information when they join.

Worse, RealAge acts as a clearinghouse, sending these e-mails from its servers using its own e-mail address. True, it appears that no identifiable information is used other than e-mail addresses, but I can’t help but grudgingly admire the chutzpah of Dr. Oz going on and on about “natural” lifestyle solutions while at the same time he’s the front man for a company that in essence works as a paid agent of big pharma to sell advertising for prescription drugs.

I wonder what Oprah will do when she finds out about this. By promoting Mehmet Oz, she’s been helping to promote big pharma. I wonder if Jenny McCarthy knows. Some of these drug companies make vaccines, after all.

While I wait for the fallout (if any, given how much CAMsters can ignore the depredations of their own), excuse me while I go and buy a new irony meter.

Comments

  1. #1 Mu
    March 26, 2009

    Let me get that straight, I can provide any email, and the email gets targeted spam for their supposed medical ailments? Like my 70 year old pastor with the STD risk, and the MADD chairwoman with the liver issues? Weight loss advice to the anorexia group? The endless possibilities …

  2. #2 Ricahrd Eis
    March 26, 2009

    Ah well, you see he will be innocent because he didn’t know about this. This is in fact more evidence of how sneaky big pharma is.

    I will look forward to his nopology.

  3. #3 John H.
    March 26, 2009

    … excuse me while I go and buy a new irony meter.

    Dude, mine broke while pegged and I still use it. Oddly, it’s accurate most of the time.

  4. #4 blf
    March 26, 2009

    You need a new irony meter? May I interest you in my latest model… The IronMeasure-Protect-o-Magic™!

    The main problem with conventional irony meters is they burn out or blow up when presented with weapons-grade irony. The IronMeasure-Protect-o-Magic™ solves this problem with a unique approach based on the latest quantum physics.

    Conventional irony meters are heavy and bulky. Part of the heaviness and bulk is the irony shielding which surrounds the meter, which itself is made of heavy-duty parts. Heavy heavy-duty parts. Despite this impressive armour, conventional irony meters are easily overloaded, melting down, burning out, or blowing up on the briefest of exposures to weapons-grade irony.

    The IronMeasure-Protect-o-Magic™ solves the problem by using the newest quantum physics material, ironiumy, which is totally proof to all forms of incoming irony. Ironiumy is like a vault; anything inside a container made of it will never “see” any irony. The IronMeasure-Protect-o-Magic™ is completely enclosed in an ironiumy case.

    But how then does the IronMeasure-Protect-o-Magic™ measure irony? This is the secret of the IronMeasure-Protect-o-Magic™, and what makes it so effective. Conventional irony meters rely on electronics called filters to prevent (“filter-out” is the technical term) irony overloads from reaching the sensitive measuring electronics, the heart of the meter. But filters are unreliable, breaking down under high load, and take time to react; they don’t stop what they can of the irony overload until, often, it’s too late. Fuses, used in the cheaper irony meters, are even slower to respond, and mostly useless.

    The IronMeasure-Protect-o-Magic™ operates like a high-speed camera. A tiny pinhole in the protective ironiumy case allows a narrow stream of irony to enter and be measured. The stream of irony, after entering through the pinhole, falls not on the sensitive measuring electronics, but on a carefully balanced cantilever-mounted mirror. For safe levels of irony, the irony bounces off the mirror to the measuring electronics, where it’s measured.

    But for dangerously highly levels of irony, the pressure of the incoming irony pushes the mirror out of the way, so it continues straight through, falling on the opposite wall of ironiumy, which isn’t affected. The sensitive measuring electronics do not get even a glimpse of the powerful weapons-grade irony which destroys all other meters.

    But that’s not all the IronMeasure-Protect-o-Magic™ does! When the mirror is pushed out of the way, a shutter made of ironiumy closes, blocking the pinhole. No further irony enters the IronMeasure-Protect-o-Magic™. The shutter detects the pressure of the flood of irony on the outside, and won’t open again until it returns to safe level, further protecting the meter inside. A blinking light—perfect for you, Orac—warns you of the presence of weapons-grade irony.

    This amazing technology is akin to the operation of a fine Swiss watch, state-of-the-art professional camera, and NASA space probe all rolled into one. The careful craftsmanship and use of ironiumy means it’s not the cheapest irony meter on the market—but it’s the last one you’ll ever need!

    For the most reliable, accurate, and only weapons-grade irony proof meter available, it’s the IronMeasure-Protect-o-Magic™.

  5. #5 David D.G.
    March 26, 2009

    I predict that the response (if any) of Oprah and her naturalistic minions will be along the lines of “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain; pay attention to him when he’s out here on stage, instead.”

    Dr. Oz is well named indeed!

    ~David D.G.

  6. #6 Terry
    March 26, 2009

    blf – that is a hoot! LMAO!!!!!

  7. #7 JustaTech
    March 26, 2009

    Blf, please, tell me more! Where can I purchase one of these wonderful IronMeasure-Protect-o-Magics? I would be willing to pay $2x. Is this a limited-time offer?

  8. #8 D. C. Sessions
    March 26, 2009

    It’s a pretty stupid and common ad hominem attack in which the attacker, virtually always an advocate of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) tries to smear those of us who argue against pseudoscience and for science-based medicine as being hopelessly in the pocket of big pharma to the point where we make the statements we do because we’re “shills” for the drug companies.

    And it can be vastly amusing, too.

    I had no end of fun last year when some newbie came to MHA and immediately tried the PHG on me. Whereupon I suggested that he put his money where his mouth was [1]. Since he was so certain that I was posting for pay, I would make all of my financial records for the prior five years available to a certified accountant, along with $5K — as long as he also ponied up $5K, with the accountant to decide whether I was receiving income from anyone other than my official employer(s) in the electronics industry. Whereupon he would get his money back, plus mine, minus the accountant’s fee.

    Easy money for him, plus actual vindication! Truly a Deal With No Downside. Right?

    The amount of squirming, diversion, and tapdancing was a true wonder to behold. SOB finally crawled off and hasn’t posted since. One of the regulars who actually is spamming the group is back again with his “paid to post” claim, so maybe I’ll do it again.

    [1] Come to think of it, would you touch money after it had been there?

  9. #9 Jim
    March 26, 2009

    DC:
    Certainly take the money! Wear surgical gloves until exposing said cash to a bit of hydrogen peroxide vapors (sterilize but not destroy).

  10. #10 Ender
    March 26, 2009

    Not only that, they carefully designed it so that you have to give them an e-mail address that you can access to get your results. So unless you’re willing to set up a new account just for this, they’ll definitely be able to spam your real e-mail account.
    I know this because I tried to take the test now just for a laugh and it insists on e-mailing your results to you. I guess now I’ll never know my “Real Age”! :(

    They questions they ask you are freaking absurd too. Along the lines of Do you drink and Drive, do your friends and family drink and drive? etc.

  11. #11 phisrow
    March 26, 2009

    I’ve got to say, that business model is as clever as it is evil, and at least twice as shameless.

  12. #12 D. C. Sessions
    March 26, 2009

    So unless you’re willing to set up a new account just for this, they’ll definitely be able to spam your real e-mail account.

    One of the handy benefits of owning your own domain and running your own mail server, eh?

  13. #13 grasshopper
    March 26, 2009

    blf,
    The IronMeasure-Protect-o-Magic™ is way over-engineered. To protect my Radio Shack irony meter in a strong irony field, i merely removed my tin foil hat and place it over the meter whilst doing my measurements.

  14. #14 Stagyar zil Doggo
    March 26, 2009

    So unless you’re willing to set up a new account just for this, they’ll definitely be able to spam your real e-mail account.

    Hail the Mailinator.

  15. #15 Coin
    March 26, 2009

    “It all involves a company called RealAge, which offers an online quiz and calculates your “real age” based on your demographic factors, habits, and health history”

    Oh, hey, it’s Wii Fit

  16. #16 Ender
    March 26, 2009

    Lucky you DC Sessions. :) Nice one, Stagyar zil Doggo! I’m going to get a lot of use out of that site, thanks!

  17. #17 ESPness
    March 26, 2009

    Is is true you can now get Irony Meters with USB? I’ve heard they can log the source of the irony to a database at the CDC. That’s cool.

  18. #18 Ciaphas
    March 27, 2009

    I’ve always found the Pharma Shill Gambit especially weird since the SCAM practitioners are usually selling the very thing they are talking up. I guess only indirect profit is a sin.

  19. #19 Kathryn
    March 27, 2009

    I had a doctor who boasted about being a pharma shill. Of course, it sounded so much better when he phrased it as being such an expert about the drugs in his specialty that drug companies would pay him to talk to other doctors about them. I think it was even in the standard phone message you got when you called his office and the receptionist was off duty.

    In my case, he didn’t seem to know the difference between symptoms of overdose vs. a new medical condition, but I’m sure the company was happy his answer was to prescribe their latest drug to alleviate those symptoms. (Which actually made it worse.) He was very adept at countering skepticism based on negative findings in non-industry funded studies.

    I guess he’s the exception that proves the rule, the way a “No Parking Here to Corner” sign indicates you can park on the block up to the sign. There really aren’t that many pharma shills, and they’re not exactly sneaky about it.

  20. #20 Michael
    March 27, 2009

    As one who has hired Big Pharma shills, I can tell you there are all kinds of physicians, the vast majority very ethical, some not so much. Interventional cardiology grew from nothing to a key procedure over 10-15 years because of the partnership between industry and cardiologists (and interventional radiologists).

    By the way, I’m glad this website constantly points out the Big CAM shills out there. I am trying to find a way to compare revenues and profits of Big CAM vs. Big Pharma. Unfortunately, it’s too complicated, so if anyone knows of a way, I’d love it.

  21. #21 Jon H
    March 27, 2009

    I wonder how long it’ll be before they start selling their data to insurance companies in order to provide evidence of preexisting conditions.