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The FDA wants drug companies to tweet about side effects

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Such is the simplicity and immediacy of Twitter, it’s become a network for all kinds of social interaction, from following TV and sports events to interacting with your favorite celebrities. If the FDA gets its way, we’ll also see drug companies tweeting about the dangerous side effects of their products, an initiative proposed in the organization’s new social media guidelines.

The much-anticipated set of guidelines is in draft form for now, but is expected to be approved within the next month. After that, they could be implemented within the space of 90 days. The proposals cover various different kinds of social media promotion, including the use of Wikipedia.

The main thrust of the guidelines set out by the FDA is to provide a fair and balanced picture of any drug mentioned. As a result, if a company takes to Twitter to promote the virtues of a sleeping pill, it must also tweet about the side effects that users may experience. If the pros and cons of a drug cannot be summed up in 140 characters, “then the firm should reconsider using Twitter for the intended promotional message.”

These guidelines match the current restrictions on TV advertising, where a promotional message about a particular treatment must be accompanied by a lengthy list of potential side effects. The same advice is given by the FDA for Wikipedia, where the onus is on drug manufacturers to provide “balanced information” in their revisions and corrections.

Since the Food and Drug Administration held its first public hearing on Internet-related issues in 2009, many pharmaceutical firms have shied away from embracing social media for fear of taking the wrong approach, and the new proposals should at least help companies in the industry know where they stand. “We’ve needed clarity because pharma is unsure of the parameters,” FleishmanHillard partner Mark Senak told the Wall Street Journal. “People need to know the guideposts.”

So-called ‘reminder’ tweets — where the drug is simply mentioned with no claims about its benefits — will not need to be accompanied by a list of side effects, giving drug companies some wriggle-room in their social media activities. Still, not everyone is impressed with the FDA’s proposals: “This proposed guidance is incredibly limiting, and the continued use of the ban on the one-click rule presupposes an unrealistic lack of tech-savvy among Twitter users,” wrote Healthcare Policy Analyst Brittany La Couture on the American Action Forum. “The result is a restriction on free speech intended to protect consumers from a phantom danger.”

Header image: EM Karuna /

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