Who among us hasn’t searched the Internet for information on asthma, allergy, or just about any other disease only to be plagued by unwanted pop-up ads for drugs for that condition?
You’re not alone. However, consumer and privacy groups are now asking the Federal Trade Commission, (FTC), to investigate and crack down on this allegedly “deceptive and unfair” marketing of drugs and dietary supplements on health-advice websites and forums.
The groups, including the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, the World Privacy Forum and Consumer Watchdog, filed a complaint with the FTC in November charging that pharmaceutical companies and the medical industry are secretly gathering information about patients, their conditions and their drug and treatment preferences through health websites, e-newsletters and online drug coupons.
The advocacy groups charge that when consumers use interactive health websites and social media to search for information on specific diseases or conditions, they’re often bombarded with ads for costly brand-name drugs and steered away from less-expensive generics and over-the counter medications. Some of the websites also fail to differentiate between objective editorial content and advertising, the groups say.
They also charge that some websites are spying on consumers, monitoring social media and using “cookies” and other means to track computer users’ habits in order to build personal profiles. The organizations say online health and medical marketers spent nearly $1 billion in 2010 targeting online consumers.
Privacy advocates are concerned that some of the marketing information gathered by companies could be used against consumers later — for example, by life insurers or employers to deny policies or employment.
Online advertisers generally contend the information they collect is anonymous. But privacy groups say a name isn’t necessary to identify someone, and consumers should be required to give consent to having their personal information collected.
Congress is currently considering measures that would strengthen online privacy protections, including “Do Not Track Me” legislation that would allow consumers to block computer technology that companies use to track their online behavior.
Meanwhile, SRxA’s Word on Health advises its readers to be skeptical of believing all they see and read online. While some condition-specific electronic health newsletters and discount coupons can be genuine and extremely informative, there are many other companies advertising products that may be counterfeit or just a scam.
As always, we suggest you discuss new therapies with your doctor before trying them so see if they are right for you. Additionally, don’t forget to read the small-print and privacy-policy disclosures before giving personal health information to online vendors.
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