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Diabetics: one sweet market

Patients are finding business opportunities in the disease -- with product endorsements, a TV show and more.

January 21, 2007|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

Howard Steinberg produces a television program that has all the elements of a typical variety show. There are profiles of famous people, reports on current issues and an attractive host, a former Miss America.

But the independently produced show, which airs weekly as paid programming on CNBC, stands on a single theme. It is all about, and for, diabetics -- and believed to be the only television show built around a specific disease. All of the ads are for diabetes-related products, such as specially formulated food supplements and insulin testing strips.

"Diabetics are not just patients, they are consumers," Steinberg said of the appeal of his show, "dLife -- For Your Diabetes Life," which claims nearly half a million viewers.

Steinberg is among a growing number of diabetics -- including celebrity endorsers, magazine publishers and an investment advisor -- who are finding business opportunities in marketing to others with the chronic disease.

"From a business perspective, diabetes is the perfect disease," said David Kliff, a diabetic and investment analyst who specializes in diabetes-related ventures. Diabetics "consume tons of disposable products, and there is no cure. It is a license to print money."

Actor Wilford Brimley of the 1980s TV show "Our House" has pitched for diabetic products supplier Liberty Medical for so long that he has become a subject of parody by comedians. Blues music icon B.B. King and soul diva Patti LaBelle endorse products for a division of Johnson & Johnson. And pro basketball player Adam Morrison, known for testing his blood sugar on the sidelines, also signed a deal with Johnson & Johnson -- along with the traditional sneaker contract -- after being drafted this year by the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats.

Entertainer Mother Love has revived her career by promoting herself as a diabetic, and former Miss America Nicole Johnson Baker, the main host of "dLife," has built a marketing machine around her disease.

Healthcare advocates see in the trend a glaring sign that the country is losing its battle against the epidemic, with the most common form, Type 2, closely linked to unhealthful diets and lifestyles.

"Our society and our medical community has basically thrown up their hands and decided it is too hard to get people to lead healthier lives, and it is easier to push drugs," said Michael Jacobsen, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Sales of diabetes-treatment products total about $8 billion a year in the U.S., according to pharmaceutical research firm IMS Health Inc., and drug makers spend close to $1 billion promoting their goods to doctors and patients.

"There is no money in prevention," said John Abramson, a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School and author of "Overdosed America." "Our healthcare system is more driven by entrepreneurial opportunities than by reasoned analysis of effective approaches," he said.

The American Diabetes Assn., the nation's largest advocacy group for diabetics, declined to comment for this article, saying the group's focus is on research and support for those suffering from the disease. Much of the group's research is widely cited by diabetic marketers.

Steinberg, Kliff and others like them say they are simply capitalizing on their positions as insiders to help other diabetics, either by increasing awareness about the disease or, in Kliff's case, helping them make profitable investments.

"There are people who are offended by what I do," said Kliff, 45, who lives in the Chicago area and founded after fellow diabetics sought his financial opinion on companies making many of the medical products they used.

Profit fuels innovation, he said. "I am all for prevention, but if you take the profit motive away, you will not get what you need" to treat diabetes.

What makes diabetes suited for this unusual brand of commercialization is a combination of overwhelming numbers and a culture that values indulgence and success, observers say.

The number of diabetics in the U.S., believed to be about 21 million, exceeds the population of most states. The number is expected to rise to 48.3 million by 2050, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The disease -- which affects the body's ability to convert blood glucose, or sugar, into energy -- is so common that any stigma once associated with it is virtually gone. And because obesity, one of its leading causes, often is viewed as a societal problem, diabetics may elicit a good amount of empathy.

Diabetes is a marketing gold mine in another way. Although diabetes-related complications such as kidney and heart problems kill an estimated 200,000 people in the U.S. each year, the disease can be managed in large part with drugs and healthful lifestyles. The possibility of triumph through personal change, as opposed to other serious diseases whose outcomes are largely in the hands of medical science, is a compelling angle.

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