Manitoba·Opinion

Should Kim Kardashian be giving women medical advice?

American drug regulators are upset with Kim Kardashian for promoting a morning-sickness drug online, but perhaps the reality star should be applauded for using social media to make more women aware of medical options that could save their pregnancies, writes Joanne Seiff.

U.S. and Canadian health regulators should set social media guidelines, writes Joanne Seiff

Kim Kardashian poses for photographers at the Cannes Lions 2015 on June 24. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says Kardashian’s social media posts promoting Diclegis, an prescription anti-morning sickness drug, violate federal drug promotion rules because they don’t mention potentially dangerous side effects and drug interactions. (Lionel Cironneau/Associated Press)

U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulators are upset with Kim Kardashian. She promoted a drug, via social media posts, without proper adherence to U.S. rules.

This approach to drug advertisement may also be against Canadian law.

A celebrity endorsement, with an unknown amount of compensation attached, written with support from the drug company itself, poses a challenge to Health Canada, according to Timothy Caulfield, a health professor at the University of Alberta.

There are many issues here, but the ones that seem most pressing are these: Regardless of the celebrity involved, social media is the way of the future for advertisement. While no one would consult Kardashian as their medical expert, she gains the attention of the focus group for this particular drug.

What is it? Diclectin (or Diclegis in the U.S., produced by Canadian drug-maker Duchesnay Inc.), which is commonly prescribed to women facing severe morning sickness during pregnancy. This antihistamine and vitamin combination aims to help with nausea so severe that it is not a "morning only" phenomenon.

Doctors often prescribe this to pregnant women diagnosed with hyperemesis gravidarum. This means the women lose weight rather than gain it, and sometimes face hospitalization due to dehydration.

Most pregnant women pay more attention to social media outlets than they would to TV drug commercials or print newspaper ads. The many millions of pregnant women in the U.S. and Canada are more likely to watch Netflix and follow Instagram, Facebook and celebrity tweets.

So, while perhaps Kardashian's handlers or the drug company may have violated federal drug-promotion rules, it seems in the best interest of the FDA, Health Canada and the drug companies to co-operate on improving their approach.

Why? Turn on a TV or read a newspaper and you'll see the drug ads. These ads are for Viagra, Cialis, and any one of a number of arthritis and pain relief drugs, among other things.

Apparently all these ads, with paid actors, work within the FDA and Canadian drug rules. While many older North Americans feel these drugs would improve the quality of one's life, they might not be seen as directly life-sustaining.

Facing risks early in pregnancy

Yet, many young women suffer terribly during pregnancy, with hospitalizations for severe nausea. In early pregnancy, women often don't discuss their condition with anyone for fear of miscarriage. Thus, they don't know many of the options, both medical and folk traditions, available to treat morning sickness. 

If they seek early prenatal care, some family doctors will tell them about Diclectin or other medicines. Those doctors may feel comfortable prescribing them. Patients treated early avoid substantial weight loss, dehydration, emergency hospital visits or self-treatment. Some might take a home remedy substitute that might be harmful to the fetus.

Women face more risks if they don't seek prenatal care, or if their doctors don't know about anti-nausea drugs, including Diclectin.

The publicity belittles those who "take medical advice" from Kim Kardashian. However, this sort of social media promotion creates awareness of a medical treatment in much the same way as Viagra commercials.

Are pregnant women less worthy of learning about potential medical help for nausea than men who suffer impotence? Should pregnant women watch only TV commercials to hear about solutions? Is there any difference (other than potential audience) between a celebrity endorsement via Instagram with a link to the drug company site and the FDA-approved labelling information and those commercials on Zoomer TV?

When a doctor prescribed me Diclectin in very early pregnancy, I'd never heard of it before, but I'd already lost five pounds. No drug is perfect; I felt stoned from the antihistamine, couldn't drive, and felt it impeded me in my work life. 

Yet, after taking it, I managed to eat, thus sustaining both myself and my twin pregnancy. I apparently looked so bad that when I finally revealed the pregnancy to a friend in my second trimester, she gasped with relief.

"Thank goodness," she exclaimed, with a big smile. "I thought you might have cancer. You were so nauseous and wan that I thought you were undergoing chemo."

Older ad formats don't always work

I don't follow Kardashian on social media. Celebrity endorsements and TV drug commercials don't instantly cause me to "ask my doctor for details." Yet, I felt desperately nauseous for the first four to five months of pregnancy, and faced bad heartburn for the remainder. Luckily, the first doctor I saw prescribed something relatively safe to help.

There's no reason that pregnant women need to suffer, ignorant of the options, just because older advertisement formats don't reach their target audience.

Perhaps these news pieces should be framed differently. How about this — thanks to Kardashian's social media approach, many young women have the same access to medical drug information as older men who seek Viagra.

The FDA and Health Canada should establish clear drug-promotion guidelines for social media use. How many followers must one have for these guidelines to be relevant? Four friends, or a million followers?

These regulatory bodies could use social media to be leaders in improving women's health. Prenatal and post-natal health and well-being is hard enough.

Even if Kardashian got paid for her efforts, let's not punish her for women's health advocacy. It's about time it got more attention.


Joanne Seiff is the author of two books and the mother of twins. She writes, designs and teaches in Winnipeg.

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