by Ann Woloson, Executive Director, Prescription Policy Choices

Who’s lurking in the shadows of our kid’s computer screen? Marketers, that’s who, including drug companies offering free gifts in exchange for personal information, which in turn, is used for marketing purposes.

Many adults might be surprised and offended to know their personal information, which most assume is private, is frequently being used in such ways.  Now young teens and older children are being targeted via the internet by a whole host of marketers, including pharmaceutical companies.

As a policy maker and a parent, I’m concerned about drug companies reaching out to kids over the internet under the guise of providing information.  Free gifts are offered in exchange for names, addresses, date of birth, and other personal information; which is unknowingly used, shared or sold for marketing purposes.

My concern is not about limiting access to information, especially information kids want about health care they may need.  My concern is over what drug companies do with information they collect from teens. It will be used to market specific drugs to kids–products that might not be necessary or not as safe or effective as others on the market.

While federal law offers some protection to kids under age 13, older children are not protected. A law to help prevent predatory marketing was passed unanimously in Maine last spring.  Its intent was to prevent the retrieval of personal health care-related information from kids that would in turn be used for marketing purposes.  Testimony regarding the proposed law described drug company pop-ups and other ads that lure kids to websites offering free gifts (music downloads, backpacks, coolers, art supplies, lunch boxes, etc), coupons and free samples, in exchange for their personal information.

The law was challenged in court by a number of plaintiffs, including web companies, universities, and newspapers, who were concerned about free speech rights. Colleges were concerned they wouldn’t be able to market programs to students. Newspapers worried they could not report on sports events or kids who make the honor roll.  While drug companies are not named in the challenge, they were represented and provided comment at a legislative committee meeting in Maine where the law was reviewed.

Previous legal cases have established that public speech and commercial speech are provided different protections, especially when states have an interest in protecting the health, safety and welfare of children.

However, it appears, that Maine’s final predatory marketing law may pose unintended problems even though it was amended to address real privacy concerns. For that reason, it’s likely to be repealed and reintroduced with changes allowing legitimate activity, while providing privacy protections teens need to prevent the use of their personal information for unintended purposes.  There needs to be a balance between the right to access information for legitimate purposes, and the right to safeguard and protect the privacy of our children’s personal information.

PostScript is a group blog, and a forum for many different opinions on prescription drug issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Community Catalyst or of other PostScript authors.