Asleep at the Wheel? WebMD's Sleep Disorder Slideshow Could Have Been Written By Cephalon

Last Updated May 12, 2010 3:01 PM EDT

  • UPDATE: WebMD has changed the slideshow and replaced the Nuvigil ads with ones from another company.
WebMD has published a slideshow on how to combat fatigue and sleepiness that might as well have been written by Cephalon (CEPH), the maker of sleep disorder drug Nuvigil.The slideshow does not disclose whether it was sponsored by Cepahlon (it was), even though an ad for Nuvigil appears on every page of it. The show begins:
Fatigue Cause No. 1: Not Enough Sleep
... Seek help from a doctor. You may have a sleep disorder.
But, the reader asks, what kind of sleep disorder might I have? WebMD suggests:
Fatigue Cause No. 12: Shift Work Sleep Disorder
Working nights or rotating shifts can disrupt your internal clock. You may feel tired when you need to be awake. And you may have trouble sleeping during the day.
... Talk with your doctor. Supplements and medications may help.
"Shift work sleep disorder" is a phrase largely invented and popularized by Cephalon for Nuvigil and its predecessor drug, Provigil. The phrase didn't really exist until Cephalon asked the FDA to approve its drugs for this condition. And only Cephalon's drugs are approved for SWSD.

SWSD is not a disease or a sign of ill health per se. It's merely a healthy person's normal response to working on the night shift. The cure for SWSD is to get a new job.

WebMD did not immediately respond to a call for comment. Although the site's "mission" is "to bring you the most objective, trustworthy, and accurate health information on the web," WebMD has a history of tangling its "objective" content with its advertorial. In February, the site published a depression test sponsored by Eli Lilly (LLY) which diagnosed users as possibly suicidal no matter how they answered the questions.

WebMD's inconsistent treatment of sponsored material can be seen in its differing disclosures. On the Lilly depression test, WebMD said:
This content is selected and controlled by WebMD's editorial staff and is funded by Lilly USA.
But on another page about sleep disorders -- which also features a Nuvigil ad -- the disclosure reads:
The content below was selected by the WebMD Editorial staff and is solely under WebMD's editorial control.
Related: Image by Flickr user jasmic, CC.

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