FreshBlood Group Founder & CEO Robert Finkel shared his thoughts with PharmaLive on various healthcare industry topics including the youth vaping epidemic and the complexities in promoting CBD-based products.


PharmaLive: Critics say advertising and public relations are driving the teen vaping epidemic, that marketing is the root cause (present company excluded, of course). How are health and advertising leaders going to successfully tackle the e-cigarette and vaping issues moving forward?

Bob Finkel

Robert Finkel: Actually, I take issue with the premise that marketing is the “root cause” behind the vaping epidemic. This explanation and tendency to point the finger at advertising is far too simplistic. I would argue that, from my own personal experience raising two impressionable teens, peer pressure is a primary culprit and a formidable force behind the spreading popularity of vaping and e-cigarettes. Any parent, coach, or teacher knows that teens are under constant pressure to fit in, propelled by social media, and yes, subjected to advertising and PR campaigns. My point is not to downplay the role of advertising & PR, whether deliberately or unintentionally directed at teens; I agree that marketing plays a role in all of this.  However, like in any health epidemic, shouldn’t we first identify the actual root cause and risk factors involved, before devising an approach to counter this dangerous trend?

To be fair, one other major contributor to the vaping epidemic is, in fact, our own federal government and the lack of appropriate policy changes and educational campaigns to a vulnerable public. Vaping health risks turned health crisis, were suspected and known years ago. Yet, the FDA is long overdue in addressing this problem, largely silenced by the successful efforts of big tobacco industry lobbyists and the current administration which postures before ultimately backing down on important changes like banning flavors that are designed to attract the youth market. We need collaboration and the cooperation of our government, at all levels, if we expect to implement real change.

As seasoned experts in designing influential marketing campaigns and behavior modification initiatives, the leaders in our industry do have a moral obligation to tackle this problem head on. Calling upon our collective knowledge, and the many tools and techniques we’ve perfected as industry professionals, we should all work together. Insight-mining through target market research is an advisable first step. We need actionable insights from which to design an anti-vaping marketing campaign pertaining to young people. Understanding the different motivations and inflection points that lead to choosing to vape or not to vape, and all points in between, would provide critical knowledge from which we could draw effective ways to counter the epidemic. In many respects, vaping is an addiction problem, not easily reversed. There is a science behind behavior modification techniques, whether around quitting an undesirable habit or providing positive reinforcement for vaping-celibacy. We can start with a plan of clear behavioral objectives. Then follow up with powerful messaging, a compelling campaign, smart channel choices and metrics monitoring. These steps would improve the chances of making any anti-vaping crusade impactful where it counts.


PharmaLive: What healthcare topics would you would like to see addressed by politicians on the 2020 campaign trail?

Robert Finkel: Let me start by stating the obvious; the health issues that are top-of-mind in today’s political forum have been, as they say, done to death. We all know the usual topics that are constantly referred to by politicians and the punditry class: the opioid epidemic, prescription drug pricing, and Medicare for all.

Therefore, I’d like to proffer a few serious public health issues I think are grossly overlooked in today’s public dialogue:

  • Step-therapy/prior authorization. It’s inhumane and criminally incompetent to require patients to first try a string of less expensive drugs on the Medicare approved or formulary preferred drug list before advancing to more expensive and efficacious drugs.
  • Vaping epidemic: The facts are in on this cynical initiative by big tobacco to target unsuspecting teens and pre-teens with “kid-friendly” flavors. And yet industry lobbyists and the Trump administration are obstructing any real advances.  We’re seeing the harvesting of our future generation in the most calculating and despicable way.
  • Aging in Place: This concept of the aged living out their final years with dignity in a place of their choice is reserved only for those select few who have the means. We need to revamp the laws around affordable assisted living.
  • Homelessness: The rising tide of homeless in our cities is out of control and there is no evidence anywhere of a centralized plan to address this critical issue.  Our public and private institutions are failing the most vulnerable members of society.  Something’s seriously broken.


PharmaLive: The promotion of new CBD products raises complex issues. The options available for marijuana advertisers currently are restricted. Mainstream advertising is a complex prospect, even in states where many forms of cannabis are legal. With demand for effective CBD marketing on the rise, how are advertisers navigating restrictions in this area of the industry?

Robert Finkel: While the 2018 Farm Bill legalized the sale of hemp-derived CBD products, government regulations vary by state and oftentimes by city, and those rules continue to evolve. Keeping this in mind, promotion of CBD-based products is both restricted and complex to implement. This imposed restraint underscores the critical importance of staying on top of the ever-changing CBD landscape, in order to remain fully compliant. It’s not enough to just know the basic do’s and don’ts around promotion of CBD products. One really should research each and every planned move before jumping ahead to implementation. The penalties for inadvertently stepping over the line can be severe and not easily reversable.

There is growing public awareness around the many proposed health and disease-mitigating benefits of CBD, from anti-nausea and anti-anxiety to pain relief and seizure reduction. While the claims all seem promising, the actual, uncontested evidence often falls somewhere between credible science and overstated conjecture. Therein lies the risk to advertisers. Any health claims appearing in advertising will be closely scrutinized by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and, to some extent, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Therefore, every form of promotion must be substantiated with credible scientific proof. If not, don’t make health or medical claims in your marketing materials – period. This includes consumer reviews, testimonials and social media posts.

Of course, there are a few hard and fast rules that apply to the type of content permitted: the age of the audience you can target (i.e. no minors), and the precise location and communications channels you can use to build brand awareness and get the message out. At this time, the major social media companies have divergent policies around CBD promotion.  This ranges from Facebook, which recently announced lifting the CBD advertising ban (hemp-derived CBD only) to an absolutist no-fly-zone policy in the case of Twitter and Instagram.

The question of how best to navigate the restrictions around marketing CBD products begins with a risk-mitigation strategy. In other words, one should diligently research the federal and state laws. And not just once or twice, but perpetually. Next, focus on creating the kind of informative content that will educate your audience, steering clear of aggressive sales pitches or unsubstantiated health claims. Meanwhile, strengthen your brand awareness by designing an SEO strategy and credible affiliate network to improve your ranking online. There are many other aspects to building your marketing plan, and while it’s extremely tempting to go big, the devil is indeed in the details. 


PharmaLive: How are your clients and healthcare organizations using digital therapeutics and digital medicines to improve adherence/outcomes and treat patients more effectively in what is considered an area of unmet need?

Robert Finkel: There are many fine examples of digital medicine offerings operating at the intersection of hardcore biology and software technology. Although the field has been in existence for over a decade, only recently are we seeing real advances taking place. Evidence of this can be seen across a growing number of medical conditions, spanning from chronic migraine and diabetes to hypertension and substance use disorder. And there appears to be an increased public appetite for all sorts of innovative health-tech answers to everyday problems.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, launchpad funding organizations like Rock Health boasts a robust client portfolio and product pipeline unlikely to be found in any other area of the country. The technology itself is fascinating while the data analytics collected through these apps and drug-device combinations are nothing short of mind-and-health-altering.

A few prime examples come from the digital pill sector. Ingestible sensor companies like etect Rx and Proteus Digital Health both claim to help physicians improve clinical outcomes by monitoring, confirming and recording “ingestible events” in real time. Each employs some combination of an ingestible pill embedded with a wireless sensor, a smartphone or wearable app to collect and transmit information and a web-based portal to share patient information with the healthcare provider and family members. In recent years, Otsuka and Proteus announced FDA approval of Abilify MyCite, a drug-digital device combo product designed to confirm medication adherence in a difficult to track patient population.

Another set of examples come from Pear Therapeutics and N-1 Headache. Pear’s reSET is a multi-month prescription digital tool aimed at addiction, including people with Opioid Use Disorder. The tool provides cognitive behavioral therapy through the app as an adjunct to outpatient treatment, all delivered through a smartphone. There’s also an associated dashboard for clinicians than can report on patient use of the tool, lessons completed and patient-reported cravings and triggers. N-1 Headache was designed with the help of a top-tier scientific advisory group of neurologists for those with chronic migraine. Like an expanded patient diary, only on steroids, the N-1 headache app uses visual language to map and record individual triggers to help manage risk factors and presumably avoid medication overuse.

A last example of smart thinking comes from Omada Health. While their health risk-reduction tool is pretty awesome, this company went the extra mile to conduct a host of peer-reviewed studies and compile evidence-based data, including cost saving results, all which allows them to walk into big employers and payers with a ROI plan in hand.

Regardless of the technology offering and area of health focus, the more these digital medicine companies can do to align themselves with the larger healthcare ecosystem, the faster they will be adopted into our everyday lives.


About FreshBlood Group

FreshBlood Group is a uniquely bespoke up-stream, down-stream solutions provider for newly established life science companies. Its consulting division specializes in brand development, commercial positioning, and pre-launch market preparation; while the creative division executes creative campaigns and communications that target the full spectrum of health industry channels and stakeholders. Headed by Robert Finkel, one of the preeminent marketing authorities in the healthcare industry, FreshBlood Group specializes in servicing pre-commercial life science firms and companies bringing “first-of-kind” healthcare products to market. Clients include: Inovio, Rigel, Revance, Oncopeptides, Menlo Therapeutics, and Aclaris Therapeutics.

For additional information or to contact FreshBlood Group, please visit: 


About Robert Finkel, Founder & CEO of FreshBlood Group

Considered a West Coast institution by his peers, Bob Finkel is one of the preeminent authorities in the healthcare industry. With more than 30 years on the frontline of healthcare communications, Bob has developed a well-earned reputation for insightful brand strategy and creative ingenuity.
After a robust career as a senior creative executive working with major agencies and brands, he and a former business partner opened Kane & Finkel Healthcare Communications in 1997. With offices in San Francisco and London, Kane & Finkel was consistently ranked among the top 30 healthcare agencies in the US and was also recognized as the number one independent healthcare agency on the West Coast for 15 years. The firm won countless awards for its successful work with the largest brands in the industry, including J&J, Gilead, Genentech, Merck, Bayer, P&G, and many others.
In 2014, Bob started FreshBlood Consulting, a progressive business model helping emerging bioscience companies find their strategic footing through brand positioning, commercial operations management and interim creative services. Over time, client demand has fueled FreshBlood’s expansion, resulting in the launch of a dedicated, best-in-class creative arm and a strategic reorganization. Now, both consulting and creative divisions operate under the banner of FreshBlood Group, which uniquely delivers a full range of mission critical, upstream/downstream solutions for the healthcare marketplace.
Bob Finkel’s record of benchmark achievements continues to define his role, not just as a successful entrepreneur, but as one of the healthcare industry’s real innovators. Bob earned a degree in Advertising, Marketing and Journalism from Penn State University, having graduated with top honors.