NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Bristol-Myers Squibb is the only major drug maker to implement a moratorium on "ask your doctor"-style advertising, but analysts say it's no sacrificial lamb.
Bristol-Myers (down $0.03 to $25.05, Research) has "nothing to lose" from the moratorium because the company has "no lifestyle drugs in their pipeline," said Le Anne Zhao, analyst for Caris & Co.
The next two potential products in Bristol-Myers' pipeline are the diabetes treatment Muraglitazar, filed with the Food and Drug Administration in December of 2004, and rheumatoid arthritis drug Abatacept, filed in March, 2005. Bristol-Myers is partnering on Muraglitazar with Merck (down $0.04 to $31.13, Research), which is cooperating with Bristol-Myers on a moratorium only for this specific drug.
The term "lifestyle" refers to drugs like those treating erectile dysfunction and insomnia, rather than often-fatal illnesses like cancer and heart disease. Lifestyle drugs feature prominently in direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising, which is why virtually everyone's heard of Pfizer's (down $0.38 to $62.54, Research) Viagra. It might also explain why other drug makers have not embraced the idea of a moratorium.
"Merck and Pfizer would probably lose money from a moratorium," said Barbara Ryan, analyst for Deutsche Bank North America. "They have portfolios that would benefit from DTC advertising."
Pfizer and Merck both have anti-insomnia medications in their pipelines, said Ryan, and Merck is also developing Gardasil, a vaccine to prevent human papillomavirus infection, which can cause cervical cancer. "You want to educate people on the condition and how to avoid it," said Ryan.
Drug companies spent $4.1 billion on DTC advertising in 2004, according to TNS Media Intelligence, up from $2.5 billion in 2001. Alarmed at the increase, Senate Major Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn) called on the entire drug industry to voluntarily impose a two-year moratorium on ads aimed directly at consumers.
Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, an industry trade group, unveiled a list of voluntary "guiding principles" for how companies should handle ads. The guidelines, which suggested discussions with physicians prior to the launch of an ad campaign and promotion of health awareness in the ads, were hailed by major drug makers, including Bristol-Myers.
On Thursday, Pfizer outlined new guidelines of its own, saying that it would spend a "meaningful amount" of money on disease-awareness ads that don't mention any of its products, like its recent "Why live with depression?" ad campaign featuring actress Lorraine Bracco.
The FDA is planning a public hearing as it mulls over new regulations. "We are going to initiate a public process for trying to gather information for what additional guidelines we could issue to make sure that these ads are providing truthful and non-misleading information," said Scott Gottlieb, the FDA's deputy commissioner for medical and scientific affairs.
Frist followed Bristol with moratorium idea
On June 13, more than two weeks before Frist made his statements, Bristol-Myers announced a one-year moratorium on ads for newly-approved drugs.
"Drug companies have done a poor job managing public relations and they know this," said David Moskowitz, analyst for Friedman Billings Ramsey. "In many cases, the individual drug companies have tried to set examples where they can. This is one area where Bristol has tried to set an example."
Bristol-Myers said it will focus its efforts during that first year on educating physicians.
"We believed that a minimum of one year was the right amount of time to give health care professionals enough time to fully understand the appropriate use for our medications," said Bristol-Myers spokesman Brian Henry. "You don't want patients going to the doctor and requesting a medicine that they're not familiar with."
Henry also said that Bristol-Myers still regards advertising as "a very valuable tool" because "it helps facilitate dialogue between patients and their physicians." Henry said that Bristol-Myers was planning ads for Muraglitazar and Abatacept, pending FDA approval and in accordance with the moratorium.
With moratorium, Bristol stands alone
But no other companies jumped on Bristol-Myers' band wagon. Nearly a month after announcing its moratorium, Bristol-Myers remains the only major drug company to do so.
In the minds of some analysts, Bristol-Myers' moratorium is just a public relations move to try and overshadow the hundreds of millions of dollars paid in lawsuits and settlements after the company was investigated for inflating sales and profits.
"I think it's sort of a meaningless statement from their perspective and they're trying to grab victory out of this by taking a posture that makes them look altruistic," said Barbara Ryan, the analyst for Deutsche Bank N.A. "I also think they're trying to look like they're being good corporate citizens. Since Bristol has been investigated by just about every government agency, they have a lot to make up for in that regard."
Scott Henry, analyst for Oppenheimer & Co., said, "The whole thing just stinks of arbitrariness and public relations."
The moratoriums, whether launched by Bristol-Myers or pitched by Frist, cast drug advertising in an undeserved bad light, some analysts said.
"I don't think that DTC advertising is a bad thing; I just think in some instances it went too far," said Ryan.
"People are looking at the bad end of the knife," said Henry, the analyst, who sees ads as a necessity in today's market. He said drug makers have a finite period of time to sell their drugs between FDA approval and patent expiration.
"Patent challenges are coming quicker and clinical trials are taking longer," said Henry, the analyst. "If you can't get the word out early, you kind-of have a limited time to make your money."
The analysts in this story do not own stock in the companies mentioned here, but Deutsche Bank does own stock in some of them.
For more stories about Fortune 500 companies, click here.
For a the latest story on a potential new drug, click here.