US health companies are investing in advertising on TikTok to sell drugs related to attention and hyperactivity disorders. Sales explode despite a real medical diagnosis.
The pandemic has had significant consequences on the mental health of Generation Z, these young people born between 1997 and 2010, and very present on TikTok. Health companies are investing heavily in this market in the form of advertisements on the platform to sell drugs that treat attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders. As Vox points out in an article on this subject. For example Cerebral, one such company, spent $13 million on TikTok ads between January and May 2022, according to Pathmatics, making it the platform’s third-largest ad buyer during that time, just behind Amazon and HBO.
A viral hashtag
On the social network, many users share their symptoms of what could be similar to attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, through the hashtag #ADHDTikTok. ADHD being the English equivalent for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. A disorder which nevertheless requires a thorough medical diagnosis and which must be followed.
TikTok videos using the #ADHD hashtag have been viewed over 14 billion times, and the #ADHDTikTok hashtag over 4 billion, Vox points out. There are also many “ADHD influencers” with thousands, if not millions, of followers. They typically post about what it’s like to live with this disorder, share advice, and list myriad symptoms. Problem, many of them are not health professionals and can provide incorrect information.
Surfing on the discomfort of some young people, companies like Done or Cerebral offer 30-minute teleconsultations to diagnose whether or not the person may have ADHD. But surveys by Bloomberg and the wall street journal show that these companies are primarily looking to sell Adderall, a drug for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Bet on massive advertising
Cerebral relies primarily on TikTok’s algorithms and invests heavily in advertising on the platform to gain visibility. It comes through messages like “Have you ever thought you might have ADHD?” Some advertisements suggest that symptoms, as common as difficulty multi-tasking, concentration and stress, as well as poor planning, procrastination and disorganization, may be symptoms.
Done, for its part, spent $3.4 million on TikTok ads between January 2022 and the end of July and goes through influencers they pay.
Exponential growth of these companies
How to explain the growth of these companies? Vox explains that during the “pandemic, the U.S. government waived a rule requiring patients to see a healthcare professional in person before a controlled substance could be prescribed. This allowed telehealth or virtual care apps to be completely remote, prescribing drugs, all through their mobile app.Some of these startups saw an opportunity: Cerebral, for example, added ADHD treatment to its offerings in early 2021 and reportedly boosted sales to tens of thousands of new patients, secured hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, and spent a lot on social media advertising.”
As a result, between the start of 2020 and the end of 2021, prescriptions for Adderall and its generic equivalents increased by almost 25% during the pandemic for the 22-44 age group, a trend that the Healthcare analyst firm Trilliant Health attributed it to “the emergence of digital mental health platforms.” At the same time, these drugs have experienced shortages.
The responsibility of the platforms
The second reason for this growth is that TikTok has no legal obligation to guarantee the accuracy of what its users post. Unlike prescription drug makers, a service like Cerebral has far fewer rules to follow.
Yet last January, Cerebral ran an ad on social media associating eating disorders with attention deficit and anxiety disorders. The ad said obesity was “five times more common” in adults with ADHD, and that getting treatment for the mental health disorder could help patients “stop overeating”. Meta deleted the post, followed by TikTok two days later.
In the United States, large drugstore chains are no longer accepting prescriptions from some of the larger ADHD telehealth services.
Shortly after the Bloomberg and Wall Street Journal articles were published, Cerebral announced that it was under investigation by the Department of Justice for possible violations of the Controlled Medicines Act and a Federal Trade Commission investigation into its marketing practices. Cerebral has stopped prescribing ADHD controlled substances to new patients.