Rx-rated T-shirts provoke online storm

T-shirts A ‘designer drugs’ line of T-shirts from a US boutique, featuring the brand names of prescription drugs such as Vicodin, has prompted fierce online debate.

The T-shirts from Los Angeles-based company Kitson were designed by Brian Lichtenberg, a highly successful designer of clothes for women and men.

Lichtenberg insisted that the T-shirts were intended not to promote the drugs in question, but rather to “open the door” to dialogue about the commercial currency of drug brands in a consumer society.

However, online critics have called the T-shirts (priced between $58 and $98) “disgusting” and “shocking”, arguing that they promote the use of drugs whose side-effects can be harmful.

In addition, it was noted, overuse of prescription painkillers can be a step towards addiction to illegal narcotics.

The controversy reflects two features of the US drug market: the extent to which paying for prescriptions makes the drugs ‘consumer’ products, and the backlash against direct to customer advertising (DCTA) of prescription drug brands.

In a recent enquiry into the impact of DCTA on the antidepressant market, a leading industry advisor warned the US Congress that withdrawing television advertisements would impact negatively on patients’ mental health.

In his response to the criticisms, Lichtenberg stated that the T-shirts were “a parody of popular culture” and were “not meant to encourage prescription drug abuse” – but that “dialogue” about the use of prescription drugs was “much needed”.

As the UK healthcare system moves closer to the US model, similar conflicts over medical ethics and medical branding are likely to become familiar.