Magic Johnson’s latest move has caused as much confusion and uncertainty among his allies as he used to create on the basketball court for his foes. The retired NBA star, living with HIV for more than a decade, has joined forces with GlaxoSmithKline, a giant drug firm heavily criticized for restricting access to AIDS drugs.
Glaxo’s latest ad campaign on subways, billboards, and other print media features a somber Johnson—without his trademark smile—touting the virtues of Glaxo’s Combivir. “I am not cured,” reads the ad. “I am partnering with my doctor. I am taking Combivir every day with my other HIV medicines. I am keeping a positive outlook.”
Some AIDS activists, while leery of Glaxo, are hesitant to criticize Johnson for burnishing the tarnished image of the giant drug firm. They view Johnson as an essential weapon in the fight to democratize AIDS treatment. “There’s no wedge between us and Magic,” says Michael Weinstein, president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which has sued Glaxo for alleged price gouging, among other things. “But standing next to a giant doesn’t make you a giant. In the area of access to HIV medication, Glaxo is a pygmy. They represent the largest market share, but they do the least.”
Glaxo not only makes the advertised HIV drug but also holds the lucrative patent on AZT. The company also has earned the enmity of health care advocacy groups across the world who say that the company has used its weight in the drug industry to suppress generic-drug competitors, in effect keeping treatment from those who need it most.
“Up until very recently, Glaxo has had a history of pricing drugs out of the reach of the poorest members of society,” says Eric Sawyer of ACT UP/NY. “They have taken legal action against South Africa, including suing Nelson Mandela personally, to keep them from producing generic affordable copies of their drugs. . . . They have only yielded under duress, and they’ve been the target of numerous AIDS activists, including takeovers of their corporate headquarters.”
Last week, finally, Glaxo announced that it would be cutting the prices of its AIDS drugs by 47 percent, from $1.70 per person per day to 90 cents. The price cuts apply to all of sub-Saharan Africa, an area of the world that has been ravaged by AIDS. The move comes a few months after Glaxo began plastering the image of Johnson in urban areas across the U.S.
Neither Johnson nor his representatives responded to numerous calls by the Voice for comment.
Mary Faye Dark, manager of product communications for Glaxo, says Johnson is being compensated but wouldn’t say how much. She contends that the campaign is essentially a public service announcement aimed at African Americans, a group that constitutes a growing percentage of AIDS cases.
“GlaxoSmithKline is recognized as a leader in HIV research,” says Dark. “Given that AIDS is disproportionately affecting African Americans, this is just the responsible thing to do.” Dark also rejects the idea that the company is attempting to put on a new face, saying, “I don’t think this is about the image . . . this is about a service to the community.”
It’s also about the bottom line, according to Peter Hare, vice president of Glaxo’s HIV business unit. “The new wave of this disease is moving toward minorities, specifically African Americans,” Hare told the Associated Press. “More African Americans are dying from AIDS than white people. So, from a business perspective, if you want more patients, you have to focus on the African American community.”
In addition to the ad campaign, GlaxoSmithKline is sponsoring a speaking tour by Johnson to communities where AIDS has hit the hardest. From a business perspective, the company could not have chosen a better pitchman. Among African Americans, Johnson comes after perhaps only Julius Erving and Michael Jordan in the basketball pantheon. But unlike Jordan, Johnson is seen as taking that street cred and using it in the good fight as opposed to the shoe fight.
A spokesman for one AIDS organization says that when the group initially opened an AIDS clinic in a black neighborhood, the stigma was so great that patients preferred to be treated anonymously at clinics outside their neighborhoods. The group then brought in Johnson and renamed the clinic after him. Suddenly it became acceptable to be treated there.
In 1991, Johnson shocked the sports world by announcing that he was HIV-positive. He retired, but then returned to the court twice as a player and once as a coach.
Through it all he’s remained a staunch proponent of better treatment for indigent AIDS patients. “He is a symbol of living well with HIV,” says Weinstein. “People are afraid to get tested, and they wait till the very end, particularly people of color. The significance of Magic is that he is being treated and he is doing well.”
But it’s one thing to tout treatment and another to go to work for a drug dealer. Some critics say that the Johnson spots for Glaxo aren’t just problematic because of their sponsor, but because they represent a trend of athletes shilling for drug companies. Terrell Davis did commercials for migraine meds, Dorothy Hamill for the arthritis drug Vioxx, and Dan Reeves for Zocor. At least those three and Johnson really are suffering from maladies. Cal Ripken endorsed Prinivil, a drug used to treat hypertension, even though he’s never suffered from it.
Celebrity pill-pushing took off in 1997, says Peter Lurie, deputy director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, when federal regulations were changed to allow drug companies to mention their drugs in association with the diseases they’re meant to treat.
But Lurie says such athlete endorsements are potentially dangerous. “In a sports-crazed society, the opinions of athletes appeal to a lot of people,” he says. “But we know that any one individual’s experience may not accurately reflect the effects of a drug. It’s one thing to say, ‘Such and such is a great movie.’ But there is an obtainable answer to whether a drug is effective. [The answer] is obtained through the slow process of random trials, not by the endorsement of people who know nothing about it.”
That Johnson likely has intimate experience with Combivir still doesn’t make him an expert, says Lurie. “One person’s anecdotal experience is often not representative,” he stresses. “Prescribing by anecdote has been really discredited; endorsing should be similarly discredited. The harm that might come from someone taking the wrong medication could be substantial, in terms of cost, lack of efficacy, or lack of safety.”