January 1, 1970 (Vol. , No. )
Taralyn Tan Ph.D. Curriculum Fellow Harvard Medical
“The authors declare no competing financial interests.” This brief phrase can be found at the end of many scientific papers, a mere footnote that is most likely overlooked. It is a small gesture extended towards the reader; a tiny proclamation of “Trust what we say! We have nothing to hide!” And what would we be wary to trust, you ask? After all, the dissemination of facts, findings and analysis is innocent enough, isn’t it? Well, the truth of the matter is that the current state of our society necessitates the very existence of the seven-word disclaimer with which this paragraph began. Yet, the influence of “financial interests” reaches beyond scientific studies. This influence manifests itself as overt advertisements, sometimes under-the-table kickbacks, and…documentaries?
That’s right. Documentaries. GlaxoSmithKline, the manufacturer of the weight loss drug Alli, is financing a documentary about – you guessed it – the obesity epidemic. This begs the question: GSK – concerned humanitarians, or shrewd businessmen? The documentary itself is a product of the nonprofit group Creative Coalition, and GSK will reportedly not be involved in production (nor will Alli be mentioned in the film…again, reportedly). So why should anyone have a problem with GSK’s dollars bringing awareness to the obesity epidemic?
It comes back to that little disclaimer – no competing financial interests. Or, in another phrasing, “A drug company that makes a weight loss pill is not paying for a documentary that could directly result in increased sales for that very company.” Until that statement can be stamped onto the screen alongside the opening credits, the film, and any information included therein, must be met with at least some hint of skepticism and distrust by the audience. Now granted, the message of the film will most likely be nothing of which most of us are not already aware: obesity is a growing problem in the U.S. I doubt anybody could be so brazen as to argue that obesity is not a serious issue in this country. (Then again, I guess some people don’t believe that smoking causes cancer, and some people don’t think humans have contributed to global warming… One must resist the temptation to underestimate stupidity…) Yet, even if the general theme of the documentary is nothing new, there will almost certainly be some tangential reference to GSK’s product to sound the “Conflict of Interest!” alarms. Perhaps it will be something as simple as a voiceover: “People today are combating obesity with a combination of diet, exercise, and recently developed weight loss drugs.” (And who makes weight loss drugs, I wonder?) Yes, I would argue that the mention of medication will work its way into that film somehow…
Regardless of how much product placement – direct or indirect – GSK attains through the sponsorship of this documentary, what exactly do I have against GSK’s involvement? I mean, the company is putting its money towards awareness, after all. Well, my qualm with the situation is that it is the epitome of a wolf in sheep’s clothing; it is a business strategy masquerading as a social service. If GSK wants to fund a documentary about obesity, then call an ace an ace – they are looking to promote sales of Alli. I would prefer the company to be open about its intentions (since they are obvious to everybody, anyway), rather than hide behind the cloak of “We’re not directly involved in the production…Alli won’t be mentioned…” I think GSK is within its rights to promote products that can potentially better human health. Yet, I guess that in situations where the “no competing financial interests” disclaimer can’t be applied, I’d rather be told directly and openly, than by omission.