Ad groups worry DTC curbs may slip into Medicare bill

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As Congress considers a Medicare prescription-drug benefit, ad groups are increasingly worried the debate could extend to curbs on direct-to-consumer drug advertising.

"We are in the red-alert zone for the next 10 days," said Dick O'Brien, exec VP of the American Association of Advertising Agencies on June 18. "This is a front line threat."

Ad groups said the main worry is that curbs would be added to the Medicare plan under discussion, but there are also concerns the drug debate might raise the specter of DTC legislation.

An aide to U.S. Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., in fact, acknowledged the Democratic Presidential candidate is considering legislation to restrict DTC drug ads that would probably show up as an amendment to the prescription-drug plan currently on the Senate floor. Aides to Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Debbie A. Stabenow, D-Mich., said neither had made a decision whether to offer or co-sponsor amendments.

The Senate began debate on the prescription-drug benefit last week, is due to consider amendments this week, and is expected to vote before the July 4 recess. The House, too, is considering legislation, but there was no indication last week any DTC proposal would be offered there.

On the campaign trail, Sen. Edwards has been critical of prescription-drug advertising, as have two other Democratic candidates: U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. The aide to Sen. Edwards said no final decision to offer an amendment has been made, nor had there been any decision on what would be in the legislation.

more disclosures

In campaign speeches and statements, Sen. Edwards has called for requiring DTC ads to include more disclosures about side effects and cheaper alternatives. He's also a proponent of greater resources for the Food and Drug Administration to scrutinize DTC ads and wants to give the FDA the ability to levy fines for ad rule violations.

Ad groups were watching the issue closely. The American Advertising Federation warned that Sen. Edwards' proposal "would have a chilling effect on the content of prescription-drug advertising that could discourage advertisers from using this form of communication with consumers."

"Prescription drug advertising already is the most heavily regulated form of advertising," said the AAF in a statement

Dan Jaffe, exec VP of the Association of National Advertisers, described his group as concerned. "We have heard several key Senate offices are considering amendments in these areas. There is a belief among some groups that advertising is increasing the costs of health care. We think this is wrong."

The ad groups also fret about the issue being raised on the campaign trail.

Rep. Gephardt in recent stops in Iowa called prescription-drug ads "crazy" and was quoted as saying "it makes no sense" to run ads to patients when doctors do the prescribing. "We can't be doing this on television because this is complicated stuff."

Mr. Jaffe said there are already "a sufficient number of candidates to inject [the DTC ad issue] into the campaign. It's being raised early, which may mean [candidates] believe it will resonate and distinguish them. There is enough smoke there to be looking for fire."

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