Pfizer alters advertising policy

Move aimed at blunting criticism of drug spots

August 12, 2005|By THE BOSTON GLOBE

WASHINGTON - Pfizer Inc., the world's largest drug maker, said yesterday that it will not advertise new prescription drugs for at least six months and will spend that time informing doctors about the products.

The company said it also has retooled its print advertising for consumers to include information about alternative treatments to drugs and more detailed explanations of drug risks, and to promote products such as Viagra, its impotency drug, only on TV programs with predominantly adult, or "age-appropriate," audiences.

Pfizer's stance is stronger than a voluntary advertising code outlined last week by the drug industry's lobbying group, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, to thwart mounting criticism of its marketing practices - a move widely viewed as an attempt by the industry to regulate itself before the government does.

An executive for New York-based Pfizer said it might devise even stricter policies.

"What we have announced today is the minimum expectation that we are going to hold ourselves to," said J. Patrick Kelly, president of Pfizer U.S. Pharmaceuticals. "If there are things that we see out there that might make this activity even more productive, and even more positive, and even more supportive of the public interest and public's health, we will certainly consider those."

The Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, has called for a two-year moratorium on advertising for new drugs so that doctors can learn about them before patients who have seen ads demand prescriptions.

Frist, a Tennessee Republican, has praised Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.'s advertising moratorium of at least one year for new drugs as `'an example of restraint in an industry that needs it more than ever."

Nick Smith, a Frist spokesman, called Pfizer's changes `'a move in the right direction and Senator Frist is encouraged that companies are finally taking notice. However, there's more to be done."

Kelly agreed. "We will take the senator's statements as a door being opened to continued dialogue on ways we could work together," he said.

Heightened attention to the content, tone, and timing of prescription drug ads comes amid growing criticism of such promotion, a $4 billion expense last year.

But Pfizer's initiative, like PhRMA's, was met with skepticism by some, who said voluntary changes would do little to change consumers' negative opinion of drug companies. Analysts say other factors, such as rising prescription drug prices, add to consumer dissatisfaction.

Drug companies "seem remarkably thin-skinned on these issues," said Les Funtleyder, a healthcare strategist with Miller Tabak + Co.

As Pfizer Chairman Hank McKinnell pledged recently, the company will submit its television ads to the Food and Drug Administration for review before they are aired. The company also said that next year it will spend as much on educating consumers about health issues as it does advertising specific drugs. Last year, Pfizer spent $668 million advertising products to consumers, according to TNS Media Intelligence.

The call for marketing changes began when Merck & Co. pulled its heavily promoted arthritis drug Vioxx from the market last fall after a study found that it increased the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Pfizer had promoted a similar pain pill, Celebrex, but stopped those ads in December after it, too, was linked to cardiovascular issues.

In November, the FDA halted Pfizer's TV campaign for Viagra, saying its "Wild Thing" ads minimized risks and overstated benefits.

Nevertheless, from January to May, Pfizer spent $205 million on television, radio, billboard, and print advertising, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus.

Advertising for such erectile dysfunction drugs as Viagra sparked consumer complaints and a bill before Congress. Pfizer says it will now air Viagra ads only if at least 90 percent of the TV audience is likely to be older than 18. For example, ESPN's audience is 90 percent adult, according to a network spokeswoman.

Kelly said when Viagra television ads resume, they will probably be shown later in the evening.

Revisions made to Pfizer print advertising may be more obvious. New ads for Lipitor, the world's best-selling medicine, inform patients that diet and exercise can also be considered as ways to lower cholesterol, and they include information about how uninsured people can receive drugs free or at discounted prices.

But Celebrex advertising is unlikely to reappear soon. Because the label for the painkiller includes a black box - the FDA's most serious warning - any advertisement would have to include lengthy risk disclosures.

"Is there a way that we can do it that makes sense on television? Right now, we haven't figured out that way," said Pfizer spokeswoman Michal Fishman.

The Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper, contributed to this article.

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