The commercials seem innocent enough.
A mother who suffers from fibromylagia takes her young daughter to a carnival. Together they ride a Ferris wheel, play carnival games and eat cotton candy.
“I learned Lyrica can provide significant relief from fibromyalgia pain. So now I can do more of the things I enjoy,” the mother says looking into the camera.
Lyrica is one of just three pain drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat fibromyalgia, a poorly understood disorder characterized by deep tissue pain, fatigue, depression, and lack of sleep.
Lyrica is also a big money maker for Pfizer Inc. (NYSE: PFE). Lyrica sales rose 11% last year to $4.6 billion, no doubt fueled by a marketing campaign that includes another commercial that depicts a fibromyalgia patient shopping in a hardware store with her husband.
“I learned Lyrica can significantly reduce fibromyalgia pain, for some as early as the first week of treatment. Now I can do more with the ones I love,” she says.
About 5 million Americans suffer from fibromyalgia. One of them is 37-year old Amanda Matos, a Visalia, California woman who was first diagnosed with fibromyalgia as a teenager. She says Pfizer’s Lyrica commercials falsely portray the drug’s effectiveness and what life is like for fibromyalgia patients.
“When you see the advertisements, they show all these people that take Lyrica and now all of a sudden they can go to the carnival with their family or they can go fishing. For those of us living with fibromyalgia, that’s not true,” says Matos, who has been taking Lyrica for the last five years.
“I think so many of us feel that it sets the wrong example, not just setting expectations for us, but for our loved ones and our families that look at us and say, ‘Well you’re on that medicine, you should be able to go to the carnival.’ And we’re going, ‘Oh my gosh, it would be such an achievement if I got out of bed and took a shower today!’”
Like many patients on Lyrica, Matos has experienced serious side effects such as swelling, weight gain and blurred vision. She says the drug doesn’t eliminate her pain, but does make it more tolerable.
“My Lyrica makes it so I can get in bed at night. Otherwise I couldn’t get in bed because the nerves are so on fire and it hurts so bad. My Lyrica makes it so I can actually wear clothes for 5 or 6 hours. But I’m so exhausted all the time still that I can’t go out and do anything else.”
Frustrated by the Lyrica commercials, Matos has taken the unusual step of starting an online petition drive to convince Pfizer to change its marketing campaign.
“Pfizer has made millions off of people with fibromyalgia, but they aren’t providing meaningful help for me and the millions of others battling this disease,” her petition reads.
Through word of mouth, social media and fibromyalgia support groups, over a thousand people have signed Matos’ petition.
Many left comments such as these:
- “I have had fibro for the past 10 years. I have tried numerous drugs for the pain and so far nothing has helped. I did try Lyrica for about 3 months and the side effects were not worth the little that it helped. The swelling in my legs and feet was unbelievable. In 3 months I gained about 25-30 pounds that I am still trying to get off. There has to be something better!”
- “I would not give my dog this drug. I was placed on Lyrica it did not help with my pain at all. I walked around in a fog. It robbed me of my ability to think.”
- “I was on Lyrica for 3 years and it did nothing for me but make me gain weight, swell up in my hands and feet, and blur my vision. It did not help the nerve pain for me at all. I’m no longer taking it .”
- “I have many friends fighting this terrible disease. Something needs to be done to make medications more affordable, and to provide ones that are actually safe and effective.”
Asked to comment on the petition drive and its Lyrica marketing campaign, Pfizer gave this statement to National Pain Report:
“Pfizer is committed to responsible advertising that provides clear information about medical conditions and treatments,” the statement read in part. “Fibromyalgia is one of the most common chronic widespread pain conditions… but the condition has historically been misunderstood and under-diagnosed. Pfizer understands the devastating impact this condition can have on a person’s life and that, despite the availability of medicines to manage fibromyalgia pain, large numbers of sufferers still experience inadequate relief.”
“We understand that fibromyalgia is incredibly difficult to manage and this is why we encourage patients to work with their physician to develop broad, individualized therapeutic strategies, including lifestyle measures (such as exercise, nutrition and relaxation techniques), behavioral support, in addition to drug therapy. Patients and physicians should always weigh the potential benefits and side effects of medications to decide what treatment options might be right for them.”
Amanda Matos is weighing her options. Recently she began trying medical marijuana and says it’s provided some pain relief. In the coming months, she also plans to wean herself off Lyrica.
Matos wants Pfizer to refocus its efforts away from marketing Lyrica and to concentrate on research at finding more effective and affordable medications to treat fibromyalgia.
“We want to work with your scientists. We want to work with our doctors. We want to work with researchers. We want help,” she said.
“Big Pharma has some decisions that they need to make. If they’re not in contact with those of us that are on the ground fighting this every single day, they’re going to have some surprises come their way.”