A new documentary has some simple advice for people living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Both the people with COPD and the doctors in the 24-minute film emphasize that an active lifestyle and a healthy diet are key elements to making your life manageable if you’re living with COPD.
The documentary, “Clear the Air,” also spotlights the effectiveness of Stiolto Respimat, the COPD inhaler spray manufactured by the pharmaceutical company that financed the film.
The medication is also prominently displayed on the documentary’s website.
The sales pitch amid the profiles of three people living with the respiratory disease might be jarring to some.
But to the people involved in the film and to activists within the COPD community, the trade-off is well worth getting the message out on the disease.
Abbey LeVine, who directed the documentary, said she was inspired to get involved in the project because her mother lives with COPD.
“I realized it was a disease that needs more attention,” LeVine told Healthline. “It was important to be able to tell a story that presents a way for people to see how little changes can lead to a more normal life.”
“Overall, I thought it was a good message,” said Russell Winwood, an Australian in his early 50s who runs long-distance races despite being diagnosed with COPD in 2011. “I like the portrayal of patients who take control of their disease. Having patients background their stories is important as other patients can relate to them and take inspiration from how they manage their disease.”
Profiling the people
“Clear the Air” focuses on three older adults who are working to make their lives more comfortable despite having COPD, a disease that affects one’s ability to breathe and can severely limit physical activity.
Bob Moss is a retired industrial worker and U.S. military veteran who now lives on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
Moss was diagnosed with COPD in 2011. His doctors believe he developed the ailment due to his exposure to pollution and fumes in his line of work.
In the film, Moss discusses being active and eating healthy. He also shows off his woodworking shop where he likes to make guitars.
He and his wife, Kathy, also play together in a band. At one point in the film, Moss goes fishing with his doctor.
Mary Savord lives on her own in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
She was diagnosed with COPD in 2001 after many years of smoking.
Her diagnosis is not uncommon.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), tobacco smoke is a key factor among the 15 million people in the United States who’ve been diagnosed with COPD.
The documentary’s producers also note that 20 to 30 percent of smokers eventually develop COPD.
Savord tries to stay active to keep up her endurance. One of her activities is her visits to the grocery store where she pushes her shopping cart.
The film also shows Savord on an exercise machine at a medical facility, as well as joining others at a support group.
Tina Lisenby is a retired university admissions officer.
The South Carolina resident was diagnosed with COPD in 2009.
Lisenby never smoked, but her doctors believe she developed her respiratory ailment from secondhand smoke. Her mother and father were both smokers.
Lisenby also attends a support group and takes piano lessons.
Her brother, Marc, lives in neighboring Georgia and visits often, despite Lisenby’s insistence that she’s fine on her own.
The community’s reaction
People who are active in the COPD community told Healthline they welcomed the message the documentary presented.
Winwood said he felt “Clear the Air” was an accurate portrayal.
“Life with COPD is different for everyone. We all have our challenges,” he told Healthline. “The stories of these patients are believable and representative of many in the COPD community.”
However, despite the fact that most people are diagnosed with COPD in their later years, Winwood felt that a little younger crowd should have been represented.
“Many COPD patients are diagnosed in their 40s and 50s,” he said. “I think a wider cross-section of age groups would be more effective.”
Karen Deitemeyer, in particular, liked the message of physical activity.
“Keep busy, that’s the key. Don’t sit on the couch,” said Deitemeyer, who smoked until the early 1990s and was diagnosed with COPD in 2001.
The Florida resident said she also liked how the three people profiled in the film each contracted the disease in a different way.
“I think that’s very important,” she told Healthline.
She hopes people are inspired by the documentary.
“My hope is they get the message that you can live with COPD,” Deitemeyer said.
John Linnell, who was diagnosed with COPD in 2005, told Healthline he liked the way the patients and doctors interacted in the film.
“I was very impressed with the doctors,” said Linnell, a retired manager in the retail and marketing industries. “I would encourage doctors to remember that the people they are talking to are people. They want to have a good quality of life.”
Linnell also liked the fact that the people profiled in the documentary were shown using oxygen tubes, a common treatment for COPD.
“People shouldn’t be afraid of the stigma,” he said. “The film was very much real world.”
Promoting a product
“Clear the Air” was financed by Boehringer Ingelheim.
About 14 minutes into the documentary, the patients and doctors begin talking positively about the pharmaceutical company’s inhaler spray, Stiolto Respimat.
That portion of the film, in which the inhaler is shown, lasts about two minutes.
The final five minutes of the film also contains a legally required warning about potential side effects and recommended uses of the inhaler spray.
Officials at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said they don’t comment on specific products or companies.
They did direct Healthline to the portion of their website that discusses how the agency handles advertising and promotion of medical products.
Officials at Boehringer Ingelheim didn’t respond to Healthline’s request for an interview for this story, but in a press release they discuss the attributes of the film.
"We are incredibly proud to premiere this authentic cinematic reflection of three very different people living with COPD who share intimate details about their struggles and successes," said Jean-Michel Boers, president of Human Pharma, Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals Inc. "We know that COPD has both a physical and emotional impact on people and this film captures the realities of COPD and the inspiring triumphs of Bob, Mary, and Tina. We hope this film will be a source of inspiration and education for others."
Officials at a pharmaceutical industry organization also defended the film.
"Research shows that accurate information about disease and treatment options make patients and healthcare providers better partners. Providing FDA-regulated, scientifically accurate information to patients can help make sure that they are better informed about their healthcare and treatment options," Holly Campbell, a spokeswoman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), told Healthline.
LeVine said she was given a “ton of creative leeway” by the pharmaceutical company while making the film.
She said the inhaler is an important part of the overall treatment plan for the three people profiled, so she didn’t have a problem including the product in the film.
“It would be almost impossible not to show the drug,” she said.
Dr. Breion Tafoya, a pulmonologist at Dickinson Pulmonology Clinic in Michigan who is Savord’s doctor and is featured in the film, said the pharmaceutical company did pay her for “her time away from the office.”
However, Tafoya told Healthline she treats her patients with Stiolto Respimat and was comfortable talking about the product in the documentary.
“I offered a nonbiased opinion,” she said. “The drug is one part of a larger treatment program in my office.”
Tafoya also said the main message of the film is for people living with COPD to take charge of their lives.
“Exercise and diet can make a large difference,” she said. “One message I hope people learn is to be more proactive.”
For the most part, the COPD community activists weren’t overly concerned about the product placement.
“Patient stories need to be told and large companies have the funds to make this happen,” said Winwood. “That being said, I think subtle advertising is more effective. The product information at the end of this video, to me, makes this feel more like an infomercial than [a] purely patient story.”
Deitemeyer, who uses a different drug because she needs a steroid-based medication, wasn’t bothered by the presence of the inhaler spray.
She also had high praise for the company.
“They really care about their COPD patients,” she said.
Linnell said it’s important for people with COPD to know there’s a product out there that you only have to use once a day.
“It was obviously product placement,” he said, "but I thought they did it in a way that showed a real world setting.”