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Drug giant backs PlanetRx site

Will Warner-Lambert's sponsorship of the online drugstore's diabetes-information site bias the content?

A unit of pharmaceutical giant Warner-Lambert is backing a diabetes-focused Web site created by online drugstore PlanetRx, stirring controversy over whether drug companies can provide objective medical information to consumers.

The site created by PlanetRx and the Warner-Lambert unit Parke-Davis is the first such relationship between a cyber-pharmacy and a major drug company. The move is likely to draw criticism of industry observers, as the deal raises questions as to whether taking money from a major pharmaceutical manufacturer will bias content, care, or research.

In this case, Parke-Davis, which sells the leading anti-diabetes drug Rezulin, has signed a multimillion-dollar, multiyear deal to sponsor Diabetes.com, a site run by PlanetRx.

"We have a very strong separation of church and state," said Stephanie Schear, PlanetRx co-founder and vice president of business development. "We don't take money for PlanetRx.com, our shopping site. We are building a series of satellite sites around PlanetRx so we can do more disease-management and chronic care."

But that stance differs sharply from the policy of rival online pharmacy Drugstore.com.

"We don't take money from drug manufacturers; that's not part of the business plan," spokeswoman Debby Fry Wilson said. "We want to be an objective source for consumers."

Evie Black Dykema, analyst at Forrester Research downplayed the issue.

"That's the way the pharmacy world has worked since the beginning of time. The sponsorship relationship is clear, so I don't see it as a conflict of interest," said Dykema. Her firm last week advised big drugmakers to use the Net to build brands for their blockbuster drugs by allying themselves with content sites for critical illnesses--just the move Warner-Lambert made today.

"It's a move in the right direction," Dykema added. As consumers begin to use the Net for health information, pharmaceutical firms could be undermined as their profit margins become more obvious and patients use more generic drugs, she said.

The online consumer market for health care is expected to grow to $1.7 billion by 2003, according to research firm Jupiter Communications. But that's only a tiny sliver of the entire market consumer health goods, which Jupiter projects will reach $205.2 billion by 2003.

Within that market, disease-management is a relatively new practice that involves monitoring the care of patients treated for chronic diseases including diabetes, arthritis, and heart disease. Most often, disease-management is offered through HMOs or other managed care companies. PlanetRx claims Parke-Davis is the first drug manufacturer going direct to consumers with such a program.

"All they paying for is [for us] to host their disease management on a separate area of our site. It's not promotional like traditional advertising," PlanetRx's Schear said. Although the site links to other competitors as well as diabetes content from independent sources, some banner ads are included in the deal.

PlanetRx has plans for additional disease-specific sites and owns URLs for Cholesterol.com, Arthritis.com, and Hypertension.com, which currently point to sections on PlanetRx's main site.