March 11th, 2008

Consumers Buy Into Drug Ads

By Michael Calderone
Politico

With animated bees or talking beavers, pharmaceutical companies are cleverly stepping up how they market blockbuster drugs directly to consumers — and it’s proving effective. 

More than 30 percent of Americans asked their doctors for prescriptions based on drug advertisements, according to a new joint study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Harvard School of Public Health and USA Today. Within that group, more than 80 percent had the prescription filled by a doctor.

But it seems that drug companies have become a victim of their own success: Consumers love the pills but hate the costs.

Since the Food and Drug Administration relaxed guidelines for direct-to-consumer, or DTC, television advertising in 1997, the industry has exploded. A record $4.8 billion was spent on advertising in 2006, and the trend continues upward.

Billy Tauzin, the president and CEO of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, who, as a Republican congressman from Louisiana, was once chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, recalled that at the time, he “didn’t see the problem” with DTC ads, citing First Amendment protections of freedom of speech.

But since, he has realized that marketing prescription drugs directly to consumers — a practice that is illegal in all industrialized nations except the United States and New Zealand — can be both a “blessing and curse.”

Drug companies, Tauzin said, should include a message about assistance in paying for drugs, along with the marketing strategy.

“If you don’t assume that moral responsibility, that social consciousness, about making sure medicine reaches people whether they can afford it or not as part of your message,” he said, “then your message is a resentful one.”

Mollyann Brodie, director of public opinion and media research at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said she has observed the “love-hate” relationship in the polling data.

Based on Kaiser’s research, Brodie said the public now accepts DTC advertising as a fact of life and desires drugs but still holds a lingering resentment for the drug companies. 

Despite favorable views of many top-selling drugs, Brodie said, there’s the downside: “It’s cost, cost, cost.”

When he was still on the Democratic presidential campaign trail, John Edwards, a fervent critic of DTC advertising, called for increased oversight and railed against the ads and the costs tied to them. 

“I love the ads,” Edwards said, according to New Hampshire’s Concord Monitor. “Buy their medicine, take it, and the next day you and your spouse will be skipping through the fields.”

Since 1997, prescription drugs have become more appealing to consumers.

“If you go back to the early days, a typical ad in this category [compared] to what’s in the marketplace today, you would see some fairly dramatic differences,” said Fariba Zamaniyan, a senior vice president at IAG Research.

Now a multibillion-dollar industry, DTC ads have gotten more sophisticated in the past decade than the generic hayfield and red, runny nose. That’s because these products are competing in 30- or 60-second intervals against slick campaigns for a variety of lifestyle products.

Each year, IAG tracks the most recalled prescription drug advertisements, which Zamaniyan said could rival nonmedical brands. In 2007, the most recalled ad was for Nasonex (the animated bee), followed by Rozerem (Abraham Lincoln and a talking beaver) and Vytorin (people resembling foods).

Zamaniyan said that drug companies have to be especially creative, since their products aren’t available within arm’s length in stores but are behind the pharmacist’s counter. Ads have to be catchy enough for the consumer to remember the product before visiting his or her doctor. And doctors need to be aware of the products, too, which accounts for the $7.2 billion spent marketing directly to them.

Shannon Brownlee, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, said that there has been an “incredible rise in prescription rates” in recent years, backing up the claim that patients are not being prescribed drugs appropriately.

“At a certain point, it’s easier to write the prescription than argue with the patient,” said Brownlee, who authored the 2007 book “Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Americans Sicker and Poorer.”

Brownlee said the drug companies have a hard time breaking even without bringing in consumers through advertising campaigns.

“They have to have blockbusters,” Brownlee said. “Without blockbusters, they disappoint Wall Street.”

And to sell blockbusters, Dorothy Hamill and other celebrities have been employed. With Pfizer’s Lipitor — fourth on AIG’s list — Dr. Robert Jarvik appears to be giving medical advice directly to consumers.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, has looked into claims against Lipitor and said he will hold hearings on DTC advertising on April 23.

Stupak said the advertising “leads to people taking drugs that they don’t need.”

Tauzin said he understands public criticism.

“When nearly half of the people in America still think we’re terrible [even though] we’re trying to save their lives, there is something wrong,” Tauzin said. “We’ve got a big job to do to change that. I’m trying my best to change that.”

One way is through Partnership for Prescription Assistance, a program that has brought in 5 million people since it was created three years ago, according to the PhRMA website. Since then, Tauzin said, his organization’s public approval is up 30 points.

“That’s not enough for me,” Tauzin said. “We are above the Congress and the president, and that’s good. We are not near where I want to be.”

Jeanne Cummings contributed to this story.

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