August 3rd, 2005

Drug Firms Seek Ad Remedy

By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post

The pharmaceutical industry became the latest business group to start formally policing its own advertising and marketing yesterday in an effort to appease an increasingly frustrated public and potentially stave off future government regulation.

Earlier this year, the distilled spirits industry unveiled a beefed-up review and reporting standard for ads that spark complaints and today will release its semiannual review of the code’s results. The grocery industry, meanwhile, proposed stiffened guidelines last month for marketing food products to children.

Marketing and advertising issues have become a hot-button subject for consumers and advocacy groups that see advertisements creeping into more areas of life. The proliferation has bred looser oversight of the ads, critics say. In a recent poll by Yankelovich, 61 percent of consumers said the amount of marketing and advertising they’re exposed to is "out of control."

"The advertising industry is deeply unpopular . . . because they have no self-control," said Gary Ruskin, president of Commercial Alert, an advertising watchdog group. "They are their own worst enemy."

In response, various industries have been looking to clean up their acts.

The pharmaceutical industry has come under intense pressure recently for its television ads that tout expensive drugs for ailments from the obscure to the private. Doctors have complained that patients demand certain drugs, shifting the balance of power between patient and physician and leading to less careful prescribing of the treatments.

The controversy has also raised the ire of lawmakers and regulators. The Food and Drug Administration is planning a review of the issue, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a doctor, has requested a study by the Government Accountability Office.

"We expect to solicit comments from consumers, from experts on advertising and health care professionals on this important topic," said Suzanne Trevino, a spokeswoman for the FDA. She could not say when the review would begin but added that the agency already hears plenty from angry consumers about proliferating drug ads.

In a news conference yesterday announcing the new ad guidelines for drug makers, William C. Weldon, chairman and chief executive of Johnson & Johnson and board chairman of the industry’s main trade group, called some of the criticism of the industry’s marketing practices "well deserved." But he steadfastly maintained the importance of direct-to-consumer advertising as "a powerful force for health education."

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America proposed that companies take several steps to rein in their advertising, including getting feedback from doctors before starting an ad campaign, targeting ads for appropriate audiences and age groups and making the risks of certain drugs more obvious in advertising. The group also will set up an oversight board to take complaints from the public.

Consumer advocacy groups roundly criticized the measures as inadequate. Public Citizen, for example, issued a statement calling the industry’s guidelines "meaningless" and encouraging the FDA to strengthen its oversight of drug marketing.

Ruskin of Commercial Alert is skeptical of most industry efforts to monitor their own companies.

"I think they’re doing it for a lot of reasons—one is craven self-preservation, another is to stave off lawsuits," he said.

But industries that have some experience with self-policing argue that such systems can be effective. The Children’s Advertising Review Unit, a division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus Inc., reviews promotional material aimed at children and cites strong industry acceptance, in part because companies fear public embarrassment for not complying.

"In the last two and a half years, we’ve requested that roughly 250 ads be modified or discontinued," said Elizabeth L. Lascoutx, director of CARU. "In all but six instances, the advertisers complied with the request."

The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, likewise, reports cooperation from producers. In its latest report, covering the first half of the year, the council reported 17 ads that were investigated for complaints, and only two liquor companies failed to respond.

"If we want to have an open, free economy without undue government restrictions, self-regulation is important," said Peter H. Cressy, president of the trade group. "It’s important to the public’s sense of confidence in the industries that serve them."

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