S.F. officials say AIDS ads promote unsafe sex

The Associated Press
Friday March 16, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO — City officials may soon boot advertisements portraying healthy, attractive models popping AIDS drugs, saying the message is unrealistic and promotes unsafe sex contributing to increased infection rates. 

City buses and commuter train stations are plastered with antiviral drug ads showing young, buff men enjoying outdoor activities such as mountain climbing, hiking and sailing. One headline reads: “Going the distance.” 

Some say the ads are misleading or downright false images of what it’s like to live with the disease. 

“The diarrhea is continuous. You’re not going mountain climbing unless there is a toilet,” said Jeff Getty, an activist from Survive AIDS who’s been taking the drugs since 1995. “They are selling us the disease along with the drugs.” 

The campaign comes in the wake of a report that found the rate of HIV infection has more than doubled among San Francisco’s gay men the last four years. 

A public hearing will be held next month before the city’s Public Health and Environment Committee. If a compromise cannot be reached with drug companies, such as New Jersey-based Merck & Co., Inc., Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano said the ads will be banned from all city-owned property as was done with outdoor tobacco ads before the industry stopped producing them. 

“There are serious, serious side effects to the medicine and they’ve cosmeticized that,” Ammiano said Thursday. “These pharmaceutical companies make millions. They need to exercise responsibility.” 

These drug “cocktails,” introduced in the mid-90s to prolong the lives of HIV victims, also have produced liver and heart problems along with other damaging side effects, health officials said. 

In an effort to prove the effects of the ads, the city Department of Public Health has surveyed 262 straight and gay men visiting its clinics. Of those, 62 percent said the glossy ads covering billboards, magazine pages, bus shelters and other venues lead to unsafe sex. 

The agency plans to survey 1,000 people in an attempt to get the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to recommend the ads be toned down. It cannot regulate the ads unless information presented is found to be inaccurate. 

Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, city health department director of sexually transmitted diseases, is leading the fight to revise the ads. He wrote a letter expressing his concerns to Merck last November, but company officials responded by saying there was no proven link between the ads and increased risky behavior or HIV infection rates, he said. 

Merck officials did not return messages Thursday. 

Klausner said several other drug companies, including Dupont, Glaxo Wellcome and Bristol-Myers Squibb offer antiviral drugs through similar advertising. 

“They create a sense of treatment optimism,” Klausner said. “If people look extremely healthy and climb mountains, it reduces the general public’s concern for HIV prevention.” 

In addition, Klausner said the advertising is misleading because the drugs generally are not prescribed until the disease has progressed five to 10 years. 

Klausner said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have written articles about the potential effects of this type of advertising. 

Calls to the FDA and CDC were not immediately returned Thursday. 


On the Net: 

San Francisco Department of Public Health — http://www.dph.sf.ca.us/