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'Ask your doctor' ads in FDA crosshairs
Drug makers still spending heavily on direct-to-consumers ads despite pledge, says TNS.
October 31, 2005: 12:57 PM EST
By Aaron Smith, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Drug makers have come under fire for "ask your doctor" style advertising and have vowed to change their ways, but research data shows they are spending more on direct-to-consumer (DTC) prescription drug advertising in 2005 than they did last year.

The drug industry spent $2.94 billion on DTC advertising through August, 2005, in the most recent figures available from TNS Media Intelligence, up from $2.88 billion during the same period in 2004. At this rate, drug companies are on track to top their 2004 total of $4.44 billion.

Big Pharma will most likely get an earful on Tuesday and Wednesday, when the Food and Drug Administration holds its two-day public forum in Washington, D.C. on DTC advertising for pharmaceuticals, as well as medical devices and veterinary drugs. Consumers, patients, physicians, dentists, nurses, veterinarians, insurers, managed care organizations, and the drug companies themselves have been invited to speak.

In organizing its forum, the FDA is responding to public and political dissent over DTC ads, even as drug makers are toiling to improve their image in the eyes of consumers. The FDA is holding the meetings to gather information to issue advertising guidelines.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, an industry trade group, has tried to alleviate concerns ahead of FDA action by releasing its own guidelines. PhRMA has formulated "guiding principles" on how drug companies should handle DTC ads. The guidelines, which were praised by Big Pharma, suggested that ads promote health awareness and that drug makers hold discussions with physicians prior to the launch of an ad campaign. The guidelines, which go into affect in January, did not mention a moratorium on DTC.

Back in August, Senate Majority Leaders Bill Frist (R-Tennessee) called on the entire drug industry to impose a two-year moratorium on ads aimed directly at consumers, following the market release of new drugs. Frist got his idea for a moratorium from Bristol-Myers Squibb (down $0.02 to $21.12, Research), which weeks earlier had announced its own plans for a one-year moratorium. As of Monday, none of the other drug makers are believed to have agreed to a moratorium, according to PhRMA.

The industry has also been criticized for its intensive advertising aimed directly at physicians, who are often pitched by sales reps during office hours. A Sept. 14 survey from GfK Market Measures concluded that there are too many drug reps, and a third of the 483 doctors interviewed for the survey said reps were "too aggressive or pushy." Some doctors, according to the survey, "were actually embarrassed about the number of reps in the waiting room and the patients seeing them."

DTC advertising is more important for so-called "lifestyle" drugs, like sexual dysfunction treatments Viagra from Pfizer (up $0.08 to $21.58, Research), Cialis from Eli Lilly & Co. (down $0.15 to $49.84, Research), and Levitra from Schering-Plough (down $0.08 to $20.25, Research), GlaxoSmithKline (down $0.42 to $51.97, Research) and Bayer (up $0.49 to $34.77, Research), than it is for life-saving drugs, according to analysts.

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