In the LA Times earlier this month, under the banner ‘oddities, musings and news from the health world,’ came a rewritten press release masquerading as one of the above that stated ‘Birth control pills using 24-day regimen may be more effective.’ Firstly, just from the headline, it is clear that this is one of those tell-us-what-we-already-know stories that only serve to reveal the amount of money wasted on research that concludes the obvious. If a woman takes a pill more days a month than she does not, then she’s less likely to forget to take that pill. Plus the more pills you take, the more days of the year, the less likely your body will find an opportunity to ovulate. The article, and the study on which it is based, attempts to suggest that 24-day regimen pills are more effective for other reasons. Other reasons like those pills – or should we say pill, as there’s only one this is referring to, without actually being named as Yaz – contain drospirenone.
Bayer, the pharmaceutical company behind Yaz, has long implemented an aggressive marketing campaign in the promotion of its now number-one selling product. However, it has never before been able to claim that Yaz was more effective as birth control than any other pill on the market. This is one reason why the adverts emphasize other benefits – that Yaz is acne-clearing, reduces bloat. Originally Yaz was also suggested to improve a woman’s mood all-round, and reduce PMS-related anxiety and depression. The FDA had Bayer change that message, so that now Yaz can only be said to improve symptoms of PMDD, although the definition and existence of this syndrome is still in controversy. Birth control pills are hard to market when, until now, they could all only be said to be as effective at their primary objective – preventing pregnancy – as each other. There was no way to differentiate. It’s similar to the way bottled waters must strive to stand out from the crowd. Different pills do use different progestins, and these cause different side effects, and so women are often encouraged to swap from one to the next in avoidance of problems from breakthrough bleeding to depression. The synthetic oestrogen used is the same for all, but at different levels. A study that suggests Yaz is better at doing its actual job – aside from all the other suggested benefits, many of which have been overturned over time – is a boon for Bayer.
And an important boon, considering sales of Yaz have dropped since drospirenone was linked to the deaths and injuries of many young women, and has become the centre of hundreds of court cases against the company. Not to mention the web-based uproar over the negative impact Yaz has had on many women’s emotional and mental well-being.
That the study, or at least its promotion, leans heavily on the drospirenone as the cause of this effectiveness, and not just that the pill is taken for 24 days out of the 28 day cycle, and inactive pills are taken during the break thus producing more of a ritual and habit to pill-taking, than those brands that have a longer break, or no inactive pills, suggests that either this study was funded by Bayer – it was undertaken in Germany, and Bayer is a German company – or that Bayer is manipulating the study and paying off the researchers. That the statistics state that Yaz has a 2.1% failure rate after one year in comparison to a norm of 3.5%, and a 4.7% failure rate after four years in comparison to the 6.7% norm concretes that this difference is down to the method of pill-taking and not the drospirenone. After four years a woman is more likely to forget to take a pill here or there, the drospirenone level and impact remains the same and so cannot be the cause of the change in rate from one to four years. Only the method can be taken into account here.
It’s easy to see how useful this is to Bayer. If a woman, after hearing of all the problems surrounding Yaz – the court cases and all – is trying to decide on a birth control pill, then it is much easier to choose a different pill if she knows they are all as effective as each other and this is her main concern, that she not get pregnant. If there’s ‘information’ available that states Yaz is more effective at preventing pregnancy than other pills, her decision will be harder. She will be more willing to risk the side effects she has read have been caused by Yaz. She will also be confused to hear that the component of the pill that is said to be the root of these issues, is the reason for the higher rate of effectiveness of Yaz.
This study is good PR for drospirenone. But in their desperation Bayer is getting more and more clunky and careless with their promotional techniques, and the one good that can come from this is that more women will be able to see that the pills are products and they are consumers and must be vigilant and critical in making their choices.