May 8th, 2008

Pharmaceutical Companies Defend Drug Ads Before Congress

By Jared A. Favole
Dow Jones Newswires

Officials from several large pharmaceutical companies defended their direct-to-consumer television advertisements before a powerful House committee Thursday that is calling for stronger legislation to rein in false and misleading ads.

At a hearing entitled, “Direct to Consumer Advertising: Marketing, Education or Deception?” Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., showed three television ads and said, “These are three examples of drug companies acting improperly.”

The ads, which have all been voluntarily removed, were for Vytorin, Lipitor and Procrit. Vytorin, an anti-cholesterol drug, is made by a Merck & Co. (MRK) and Schering-Plough Corp. (SGP) joint venture. Lipitor is an anti-cholesterol drug made by Pfizer Inc. (PFE), and Procrit is produced by a Johnson & Johnson ( JNJ) unit.

Pfizer Senior Director James T. Sage defended his company’s role in using Dr. Robert Jarvik, who isn’t a practicing physician but who helped design the artificial heart, in its TV ads for Lipitor.

“Although not a practicing physician, he has devoted his entire career to medical science related to the human heart,” Sage said. “An important objective of the Jarvik advertising campaign for Lipitor was to highlight the importance of diet and exercise in reducing cardiovascular risk.” One of the ads, shown during the hearing, shows someone assumed to be Jarvik rowing on a lake. The person rowing wasn’t Jarvik.

Sage, and officials from the other companies, all said they submitted the ads, after they began running, to the Food and Drug Administration for comments. Sage said the company made several changes to its ads for Lipitor, including weakening claims about its ability to lower cholesterol as compared to other drugs.

FDA officials weren’t at the meeting, and hadn’t been invited to participate.

Sage said Pfizer decided to remove the Jarvik ads because, although it wasn’t the company’s intent to misrepresent Jarvik, “ultimately there were mis- impressions.”

Direct-to-consumer drug marketing brings in billions of dollars in sales for drug makers and for the television industry. In 1997, the government relaxed rules on TV and radio ads, allowing drug makers to shorten the warnings on side effects in their commercials; since then, pharmaceutical makers have spent about $14 billion on broadcast and cable TV ads for prescription drugs.

The renewed debate about drug marketing was spurred in part by several recent high-profile campaigns. Merck and Schering-Plough have been criticized for heavily promoting the cholesterol drug Vytorin while failing to disclose a study that raised questions about the drug’s effectiveness. 

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