Drug giant Boehringer accused of ‘disease branding’ over female sex pill

German drug company Boehringer claims to have a identified a condition called ‘hypoactive sexual desire disorder’, low libido essentially, in women and has produced a pill to solve the problem.

No-one seems to be arguing that some women don’t suffer from the effects of low libido, the argument is over whether or not it’s a disorder.

Boehringer is trying to persuade the US Food and Drug Administration to licence the drug and has launched a heavyweight marketing campaign ostensibly aimed at drawing attention to the condition, not the drug. It has signed up soap opera actress and former Playboy model Lisa Rinna to front it and launched a website, Twitter feed and sponsored a programme on Discovery among other initiatives.

Many medics oppose the campaign however. Dr Adriane Fugh-Berman from Georgetown University says: “This is really a classic case of disease branding. The messages are aimed at medicalising normal conditions and also preying on the insecurity of both the clinician and the patient.”

Boehringer executive Dr Peter Piliero claimed in a recent interview: “This is a real disease. There’s an unmet need among pre-menopausal women to have a treatment.”

The stakes are high for Boehringer and indeed the many other drug companies including Procter & Gamble that have sought a female version of male drug Viagra over the years.

P&G’s product was a skin patch that never made it to market because of cancer fears. Other companies are trying different routes, drug development company Vivus is testing a testosterone-based daily abdominal spray for women.

Sales of Viagra and its competitors in the US are worth over $2bn as part of a much larger worldwide market.

Some pundits reckon that the female demand for such a product would be much higher.

So it looks like the race is well and truly on.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.

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