Well, well, well, well…look who’s a pharma shill now!

Because of my stands against dubious medical “therapies” and outright quackery and for science- and evidence-based medicine, I have been the frequent target of what I’ve come to call the “pharma shill gambit.” It’s a pretty stupid and common ad hominem attack in which the attacker, virtually always an advocate of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) tries to smear those of us who argue against pseudoscience and for science-based medicine as being hopelessly in the pocket of big pharma to the point where we make the statements we do because we’re “shills” for the drug companies. Personally, although I did receive a couple of payments back in the mid-1990s for an invention my thesis advisor and I came up with, nothing ever came of it. Consequently, since then I’ve been so utterly free from pharma filthy lucre that when I have to state my disclosures at talks I frequently joke that I have no disclosures because no drug company finds my research sufficiently interesting or potentially profitable to bother with it. Not that that stops the woo-friendly trolls who sometimes come through here shouting “pharma shill”!

Well, look who’s a shill for big pharma now. No, it’s not any of the obvious targets. In fact, it’s one of Oprah Winfrey’s favorite guests. It all involves a company called RealAge, which offers an online quiz and calculates your “real age” based on your demographic factors, habits, and health history:

According to RealAge, more than 27 million people have taken the test, which asks 150 or so questions about lifestyle and family history to assign a “biological age,” how young or old your habits make you. Then, RealAge makes recommendations on how to get “younger,” like taking multivitamins, eating breakfast and flossing your teeth. Nine million of those people have signed up to become RealAge members.

But while RealAge promotes better living through nonmedical solutions, the site makes its money by selling better living through drugs.

Pharmaceutical companies pay RealAge to compile test results of RealAge members and send them marketing messages by e-mail. The drug companies can even use RealAge answers to find people who show symptoms of a disease — and begin sending them messages about it even before the people have received a diagnosis from their doctors.

While few people would fill out a detailed questionnaire about their health and hand it over to a drug company looking for suggestions for new medications, that is essentially what RealAge is doing.

Well, well, well, well, well. Isn’t that interesting? “America’s Doctor,” friend to Oprah, and that die-hard supporter of CAM and “integrative medicine” who recently testified in front of Senator Tom Harkin’s committee about how the U.S. needs to “integrate” more woo into its medicine is shilling for a company that gathers health care information about its members from its surveys and serves as a middle man for the targeted distribution of big pharma advertisements designed to sell them the latest and greatest pill! His picture is even right there on the front page of the RealAge website! Moreover, RealAge appears to be playing it–shall we say?–coy when it comes to informing its members about its relationship with big pharma:

Whether they are attracted by Dr. Oz’s appeal or by the ads all over the Internet for the test, people come to the site, then provide an e-mail address to take it. They are asked throughout the test if they would like a free RealAge membership. If people answer yes to any of the prompts, they become RealAge members, and their test results go into a marketing database.

RealAge allows drug companies to send e-mail messages based on those test results. It acts as a clearinghouse for drug companies, including Pfizer, Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline, allowing them to use almost any combination of answers from the test to find people to market to, including whether someone is taking antidepressants, how sexually active they are and even if their marriage is happy.

RealAge sends the selected recipients a series of e-mail messages about a condition they might have, usually sponsored by a drug company that sells a medication for that condition.

Here’s more:

RealAge’s privacy policy does not specifically address the firm’s relationship with drug companies, but does state, in part, “we will share your personal data with third parties to fulfill the services that you have asked us to provide to you,” and it adds test results to its database only when respondents become RealAge members. Some critics, however, charge that consumers do not have enough information when they join.

Worse, RealAge acts as a clearinghouse, sending these e-mails from its servers using its own e-mail address. True, it appears that no identifiable information is used other than e-mail addresses, but I can’t help but grudgingly admire the chutzpah of Dr. Oz going on and on about “natural” lifestyle solutions while at the same time he’s the front man for a company that in essence works as a paid agent of big pharma to sell advertising for prescription drugs.

I wonder what Oprah will do when she finds out about this. By promoting Mehmet Oz, she’s been helping to promote big pharma. I wonder if Jenny McCarthy knows. Some of these drug companies make vaccines, after all.

While I wait for the fallout (if any, given how much CAMsters can ignore the depredations of their own), excuse me while I go and buy a new irony meter.