Ozempic proves Canada must update DTC drug advertising rules

—When people learn about a drug through popular media, Canada’s rigid DTC advertising no longer makes sense, and must change with the times, says Éric Blais—

Imagine the iconic red pill / blue pill scene in The Matrix (while ignoring the other bizarre conspiracy theory connotations that have popped up in recent years) where the protagonist must make a choice: the blue pill symbolizes choosing blissful ignorance, like taking pharmaceutical ads at face value.

The red pill represents a harsh truth, akin to acknowledging the complex realities of prescription drugs, including side effects. This is the stark choice we face with direct-to-consumer (DTC) pharmaceutical advertising in Canada—a choice that emphasizes the need for regulatory reform.

Now, imagine a world where ads featuring people advocating for Ozempic inundate you. They’re omnipresent—on bus wraps, TV, and billboards. While you’ve been prompted by quirky prescription drug ads to consult your doctor before, the sheer volume of these ads makes this time different.

Ozempic is a drug that lowers blood sugar levels in adults with Type 2 diabetes. As per the Canadian Diabetes Association, around 11 million Canadians were living with diabetes or pre-diabetes in 2020. Most of these cases were likely Type-2 diabetes. Given this, it seems logical to invest heavily in advertising, urging these people to ask their doctor about Ozempic.

A spokesperson for Novo Nordisk, the manufacturer of Ozempic, has stated that their advertising campaign primarily targets those with Type 2 diabetes. However, the campaign isn’t just about diabetes anymore—thanks largely to social media beyond the control of Novo Nordisk, the campaign has also become about weight loss.

Nearly two-thirds of Canadians are overweight or obese, and the rest likely includes many who aspire to be slimmer. So, essentially, Ozempic could appeal to almost every Canadian. Though it isn’t explicitly a weight-loss drug, Ozempic might assist with weight reduction. The exact amount of potential weight loss is not specified in Canada, but U.S. ads claim an average loss of up to 12 pounds.

Using Ozempic to lose weight, as opposed to treatment for diabetes, has led to positive reviews on social media or from celebrities like Chelsea Handler, who admitted on a podcast that she unknowingly took the medication for weight loss.

In most countries, DTC advertising for prescription drugs is either prohibited or heavily regulated to prevent misleading consumers and to avoid encouraging unnecessary use of prescription medications. The United States and New Zealand are exceptions. In the U.S., drug companies spend about $6 billion a year on advertising.

In Canada, prescription drug advertising is generally forbidden. However, Canada allows for two types of drug ads: reminder ads, which mention the drug name but not its use, and help-seeking ads, which describe a disease but don’t mention a specific drug.

Ozempic’s ads fall under these permissible categories. However, some medical professionals have expressed concern about the pressure to prescribe Ozempic to the broader population, and the ad campaigns may cause medication shortages for those who genuinely need it.

The reminder advertising for prescription drugs like Ozempic has morphed into a mirror, reflecting the good, the bad, and the unverified of social media chatter. Because the drug is now so associated with weight loss, the reminder ads may be reminding people of the wrong thing.

Given the rise of social media platforms where the boundaries between personal opinion and professional advice blur, Canada’s regulations seem outdated. Health Canada has released guidelines to address online and social media advertising of pharmaceuticals. However, enforcing these guidelines can be challenging due to the sheer amount of social media content, the potential for individuals to share unapproved information, and the global reach of these platforms.

It’s a pivotal time where Canada must opt for one of two paths. The first is to permit comprehensive advertising of prescription drugs that provides an all-encompassing narrative, detailing not just the benefits but also the associated risks and approved usage. By contrast, the second is to follow the majority of the world’s nations and put an absolute ban on DTC advertising. Whichever path we choose, the current status quo, reminiscent of an echo chamber, puts the public’s health at risk.

As we deliberate on this issue, we should seek the advice of medical professionals and remember to critically evaluate what these reminder ads imply. It’s high time we move past simply being reminded, and start being rightly informed.

Until then, consider asking your doctor about their perspective on Ozempic, and the challenging position marketers have placed them in.

Éric Blais is president of Headspace Marketing, a consultancy that helps marketers build brands in Quebec. He can be reached at feedback@headspacemarketing.com

Eric Blais