The 'Charlie Sheen Effect': Surge Seen in HIV Test Sales

Actor Charlie Sheen in April, 2013
Actor Charlie Sheen in April 2013 (Image credit: Michael Buckner/Getty Images)

Actor Charlie Sheen's disclosure that he is HIV positive appears to have had a striking effect on sales of home HIV testing kits, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that, after Sheen announced he had HIV on Nov. 17, 2015, sales of home HIV testing kits doubled in the United States — from about 3,500 kits per week before the announcement, to 7,000 kits the week of the announcement. And this boost in sales continued for several more weeks.

"It's hard to appreciate the magnitude of Sheen's disclosure," study co-author Benjamin Althouse, a research scientist with the Institute of Disease Modeling in Bellevue, Washington, said in a statement. "When we compared Sheen's disclosure to other traditional awareness campaigns, the 'Charlie Sheen effect' is astonishing," Althouse said. [10 Celebrities with Chronic Illnesses]

In fact, the researchers estimated that sales of home HIV testing kits were nearly eight times greater around the time of Sheen's announcement, compared with sales around the time of World AIDS Day (December 1), one of the most high-profile HIV awareness campaigns.

Previously, the same researchers found that, after Sheen's HIV disclosure, there was a large uptick in internet searches for information on HIV testing and prevention.

In the new study, the researchers wanted to know whether this increase in internet searches corresponded to an increase in people actually getting tested for HIV.

So the researchers collected data on weekly sales of OraQuick, an in-home HIV testing kit. OraQuick is one of only two home HIV testing kits currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and OraQuick is the only kit that allows users to get their results at home within minutes of taking the test, rather than sending their sample to a lab to be tested.

The researchers estimated that there were 8,225 more kits sold over the weeks following Sheen's disclosure than would have been expected based on prior sales of the product.

The findings "reinforce how celebrity can impact health decision-making…and make an even stronger case that Sheen’s disclosure promoted HIV prevention," the researchers wrote in their findings, published today (May 18) in the journal Prevention Science.

Celebrities have been known to influence rates of health screenings. In 2013, there was a rise in rates of genetic testing for breast cancer genes after actress Angelina Jolie disclosed that she was a carrier of the BRCA gene, and had undergone a double mastectomy to lower her risk of developing the disease.

The new findings also suggest that internet search data can be a good predictor of people's actual health behaviors, given that people's internet searches for HIV testing information corresponded with an increase in HIV testing kit sales, the researchers said.

Original article on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.