Rate of diabetes in ethnic groups sparks outreach

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Dial the smithkline Beecham toll-free number for diabetes drug Avandia and it sounds a bit like an international airline.

"Thank you for calling Avandia, to conduct this call in English please press 1; to conduct this call in Spanish, please press 2," the automated voice says.

SmithKline and other diabetes drug marketers are making efforts to appeal across cultures because they understand that the disease is afflicting African-Americans and Hispanics at a higher rate than the general population.

MAY NOT BE DOING ENOUGH

Yet, industry observers say the drug companies such as SmithKline, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Takeda Pharmaceuticals America may not be doing enough to reach minority audiences.

"There hasn't been a lot done," says Patricia Alvarez-Scutt, VP-account supervisor of the Bravo Group, New York, and head of the new BravoMed unit for healthcare marketing to Hispanics. "It's a great opportunity for a marketer."

Spokesmen for SmithKline and Takeda say that increased initiatives to reach minorities may be on the way.

A Takeda spokesman says the company is monitoring the effectiveness of the current direct-to-consumer print campaign for its drug Actos (which it co-markets with Eli Lilly & Co.) and, based on the results, may launch a more targeted initiative.

A SmithKline spokeswoman says the company is in the planning stages of ethnic-marketing initiatives for Avandia but declined to provide details. She says SmithKline wants to put in place disease-awareness efforts with staying power. "It's fair-weather marketing when people dip in and dip out and then don't have a presence in a particular community," she says.

CAN BACKFIRE

Indeed, such moves can backfire. Ethnic marketing executives say minority communities often have a significant distrust of the healthcare system and a less than long-term initiative that fails to focus on relationship-building could prove ineffective.

"In the African-American community, there's a real credibility issue with the mainstream healthcare establishment," says Sara Lomax Reese, publisher of Levas' HealthQuest: Total Wellness for Body, Mind & Spirit, a magazine geared to African-Americans. "There's a lot of mistrust. There's a lot of apprehension when it comes to mainstream healthcare and that includes pharmacies, doctors, nurses, hospitals, etc."

Efforts to reach minorities are likely to increase, if for no other reason than economic reality. Drug companies find themselves under increased pressure to build the bottom line and are on the lookout for new or untapped markets.

SEEKING A PRESENCE

But even as drug marketers consider long-term strategies, they are already seeking a presence in minority communities. BMS has run Spanish-language transit ads for Glucophage in New York, while placing English-language ads in bus shelters in neighborhoods with a large number of African-American residents.

Avandia's ad in the October issue of HealthQuest features an African-American senior citizen. The ad, however, was not conceived solely as an ethnic-marketing initiative and has run in general market publications as well.

SmithKline and Takeda have formed deeper relationships with HealthQuest beyond ad placements. SmithKline sponsored a demonstration on cooking for diabetes sufferers at an October community health fair in Philadelphia and Takeda is running a banner ad on the magazine's Web site (healthquestmag.com) that links to its own site for Actos (actos.com).

Separately, SmithKline is preparing to turn its Avandia ad with a bearded grandfather smiling as he cuddles his infant grandson into an outdoor mural in Philadelphia, according to the company spokeswoman.

`HEALTHY FUTURE'

Pfizer also has an ad in HealthQuest aimed partly at diabetes sufferers. The image ad with the headline, "A healthy future is in your hands," tries to build awareness of Pfizer as a company that offers products for diabetes and related conditions such as high-blood pressure and high cholesterol, but it does not mention the drugs by name.

An ad for Glucophage's successor drug Glucovance, also from BMS, is scheduled to run in HealthQuest's next issue. The ad features a middle-aged African-American couple.

"If communities are being disproportionately affected, it makes good sense to have their members in the ads," says Jeff Martin, a communications specialist at the American Diabetes Association, which operates programs to raise awareness of the condition among various ethnic groups.

Figures from ADA show 10.8% of the African-American population, or 2.3 million people, suffer from diabetes, compared with 7.8%, or 11.3 million members, of the non-Hispanic white population. ADA estimates one-third of the total population is undiagnosed).

"Epidemic is not an uncommon word," Mr. Martin says.

INCIDENCE IN HISPANICS HIGHER

Other ADA figures show some 24% of Mexican-Americans, 26% of Puerto Ricans and 16% of Cuban-Americans between the ages of 45 and 74 have the condition. And 12.2% of Native Americans over the age of 19 have diabetes.

American Legacy, a quarterly joint venture between RJR Communications and Forbes Amerian Heritage Group, is reaching out to all categories of pharmaceutical marketers. The publication created a series of health fairs at local churches to offer a grass-roots reach to advertisers, such as Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical, marketer of Regranex Gel for diabetic ulcers.

SPECIAL SECTION

To continue to specifically attract diabetes drug marketers as advertisers, the every-other-monthly HealthQuest will begin running a diabetes editorial section in every issue next year.

Still, ethnic marketing executives say, drug marketers need to expand beyond simply running ethnic-oriented creative and move into grass-roots efforts. Some examples include developing relationships with local physicians and churches.

"Putting a black or Hispanic face on an ad or changing the language is not bringing people closer to treatment," says Joan Newman, director of business development for the healthcare division of Uniworld Group, New York.

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