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To the Point - July 2013

by Christiane Truelove (

The big news story right now is the Supreme Court striking down DOMA, but pharma marketers are more interested in Paula Deen. The celebrity cook got herself into trouble with allegations of racism, even admitting she had used one particular slur in the past, and as a result, she lost her show on The Food Network (though Fox has quickly hired her for a food show on its network). Then there came speculation whether Novo Nordisk, the marketers of the diabetes drug Victoza, would ditch Deen as a spokeswoman. As the time this editorial initially was being prepared, no sign that Deen would be dumped was forthcoming, but things can change quickly. Novo Nordisk announced that they have “suspended” educational activities with Deen, though there is no indication that her contract was absolutely terminated.

I believe Novo Nordisk made the right choice, and furthermore, shouldn’t have Deen back. When it was announced last year that Deen had hidden her own type 1 diabetes for several years, only revealing her condition after she signed the agreement with Novo Nordisk, I thought the company had made a mistake. Deen makes a cognitively dissonant, controversial spokeswoman. She achieved her fame – and her health problems – through cooking fat-laden, artery-clogging, sugar-laden, unhealthy cuisine that actually promotes diabetes (she says what she cooked on her show is “special occasion food” not meant to be eaten every day, but as a cook, you can’t help tasting everything you make. All those bites add up). But even beyond her disingenuousness about her own diabetes before the Novo Nordisk deal was announced, you have here a person who has been accused of racism. Considering the diet-linked problems of obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes in the African American community – based on a cuisine that Deen has made a great deal of money promoting – and now you have the same person, who admits to have made racist comments in the past and is being sued by a former employee who alleges racial discrimination in the workplace – giving diet advice to that community?

I was curious, so I hopped on over to Cafe Pharma, and sure enough, a thread about Deen had been started on the Novo Nordisk board with this statement:

“As long as you keep Paula Deen I along with several practitioners will strongly encourage the discontinuation of your products and seek resolutions elsewhere. It’s one thing to know that Paula Deen herself admitted to using racist, hurtful language, but for a reknowned diabetes corporation to continue their business alliance with an admitted bigot is quite disturbing. Your corporate behavior and decision is dated even for the late 20th century and here we are well into the 21st century, and what have you learned, NOTHING. Just wondering, who are the nimcompoops who made the recent decision to continue using Paula Deen as a spokesperson? Hopefully not laboratory workers and scientists developing breakthrough products?”

One of the replies contained a hint at how some of the employees felt about Deen being retained, and what they thought it would mean for the company. “Right now, it looks like we’re the only major sponsor that is keeping her on board, because I’ve seen our name mentioned in two articles. Last year we were linked to the controversy of her not exposing her diabetes until she signed our contract,” this person said. “Either way, I guess that we’re doing well enough that we can probably weather this storm. But it’s sure not scoring us any feel-good points in the areas of the country most outraged by this.”

Novo Nordisk was being very tone deaf about this whole thing. A spokesman told Ed Silverman of Pharmalot, “We recognize the seriousness of the allegations. We don’t condone racial intolerance and certainly have spoken to Paula about her comment. She’s taken a proactive approach to explaining herself and we’re going to continue to provide for the best care possible for the patients.” Call me crazy, but that sounded like a whole lot of nothing.

There are plenty of defenders of Deen out there, and she has a lot of fans – of her cooking and her plain-spoken, homey personality (though I continue to be amazed that anyone is a fan of that stuff she calls lasagna, especially the slimmed-down version that was a recipe on Novo Nordisk’s “Diabetes in a New Light” Website). If Novo Nordisk chooses to try and let the controversy fade and then bring her back as a spokeswoman, it probably won’t do the company any great amount of harm. But it would be another black mark on the soul of an industry that has many black marks, and just shows the world at large once again that it’s not the patients who count, it’s the bottom line.

Posted: July 2013