The number of people with diabetes rose to 26 million last year, or 8% of the US population, the American Diabetes Association found. Revenue for metabolic drugs has climbed as treatment options have exploded beyond insulin to include pills like Takeda’s best-seller Actos and Merck’s Januvia, as well as injectable drugs like Eli Lilly/Amylin’s Byetta and Novo Nordisk’s Victoza.

Type 2 diabetes, which accounts for about 90% of cases, “is diagnosed and driven by pill sales initially, and the majority of patients are on pills, despite the fact that diabetes can be best managed with insulin,” noted Tony Butler, PhD, managing director and senior pharma analyst at Barclays Capital. “There seems to be, from a type 2 diabetes perspective, increasing resistance to injectables.”

Drugmakers are out to change that. Pills may be easier to take and, safety concerns aside, less problematic than needles, but marketers are touting novel devices designed to help patients better manage the disease while overcoming needle phobia.

Novo Nordisk, for instance, today launched an educational program, Drive the Switch, which leverages pitchman and professional race car driver Charlie Kimball to encourage diabetes patients who use insulin and caregivers to pledgeto talk to their healthcare professional about options for insulindelivery, like the pre-filled insulin pen device.

The effort follows the debut of a TV commercial for Novo Nordisk’s pre-filled device FlexPen. The spot aired in the New York region last fall, showing patients taking the dial-a-dose pen with them on the go. Like the new Charlie Kimball effort, the pen commercial was aimed at patients already taking insulin injections, focusing around awareness of the device and the ability to have more flexibility in managing diabetes. Novo is considering expanding FlexPen DTC efforts, although no plans have been announced, said Camille Lee, VP diabetes marketing for the Danish firm. 

The promotions are designed to get Americans to embrace new insulin delivery options. In the US, less than 20% of people with diabetes use a pre-filled insulin pen to inject their insulin. In other parts of the world, usage is as high as 85%, according to a 2008 survey conducted by Novo Nordisk.

To be sure, sales of injectables are increasing. Sanofi-Aventis’ long-acting Lantus insulin brand is the number one brand in the diabetes space. US sales of its pre-filled pen Lantus SoloStar shot up 51% last year to $1.2 billion, according to wholesale acquisition cost (WAC) data from Wolters Kluwer Pharma Solutions. That’s still only about half the sales of the vial-and-syringe form of Lantus.

“Over the last 10 to 15 years that I have been in diabetes, when you look at all of the different options that are available for people, there’s been a lot of different combinations, but the control isn’t necessarily getting better,” said Angela Moskow, VP of diabetes marketing, Sanofi-Aventis US. She said SoloStar makes it easier for patients to inject and for caregivers to teach how to use the med.

She said the company has tried to drive that awareness message in the marketplace. In 2010, the US unit of the French drug maker launched physician- and patient-focusededucational campaigns, devoting $46 million to awareness of Lantus SoloStar,according to data from Kantar Media.

Both Novo and Sanofi have been doing a fair amount of listening to customers, too, on social media platforms. Charlie Kimball has been tweeting his use of Novo Nordisk long-acting insulin Levemir since last year. And Sanofi-Aventis US recently expanded its social media footprint with a “Discuss Diabetes” blog and a “WhyInsulin” YouTube channel, joining a Facebook page and Twitter feed, to foster dialogue. Its GoMeals carb counter app is designed to help patients manage the illness.