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DTC rift as Bristol ban breaks ranks

By Published on .

Bristol-Myers Squibb's move to self-impose a year long ban on DTC ads creates a major rift in the pharmaceutical marketing world.

Officially, most of Bristol-Myers' rivals declined to comment on the company's decision to voluntarily abandon DTC ads during a product's first year on the market and to limit the times of day when it advertises drugs on TV. But unofficially most are in stark disagreement with Bristol-Myers' position.

One rival even remarked that beleaguered Bristol- Myers, which has only just settled a federal charge of accounting impropriety, can do this as it has little to lose. "They've got a great pipeline," commented the executive, "but hardly any of it is conducive to a big DTC campaign."

The industry's top lobby group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, also disagrees with its member's stance. A spokesman for the group, which is about a month away from releasing its own code of conduct for the $3.8 billion DTC category, and is trying to head off the looming horror of congressional regulation, said patients "have a right to know about new drugs." Executives familiar with some of the wording in the drafts say that a moratorium of any length is not part of the guidelines.

When Advertising Age recently editorialized that such a moratorium would be a positive move, almost every group involved in pharmaceutical advertising or marketing-including the Association of National Advertisers and the American Association of Advertising Agencies-railed against the notion. They said such a move would be "anti-consumer," and pointed out that an FDA survey found 89% of doctors believe DTC advertising made patients more involved in their health care.

But Bristol-Myers CEO Peter Dolan is set to take over as PhRMA's chairman next year, replacing current chair William Weldon, the CEO of Johnson & Johnson. Mr. Weldon, in fact, may be the closest thing Bristol-Myers has to an ally in this debate. Earlier this year he said Johnson & Johnson would be changing its DTC ads to reflect more risk information and challenged the industry to do the same. Mr. Weldon's remarks were said by some to be a "public relations ploy."

CONGRESSIONAL ATTENTION

The Bristol-Myers move comes as members of Congress have focused their attention on DTC advertising. One bill, from Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., would require ads for newly approved drugs to carry extensive new warning labels.

But the industry as a whole has been under fire from the public since late last year, when the prescription anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx was pulled from the market, followed by the Food and Drug Administration's request that Pfizer pull its ads for Celebrex, a similar drug.

Most of Bristol-Myers' drugs that are close to FDA approval are therapeutic, including medications for cancer. Moreover, Bristol-Myers has been at the bottom end of the spending chart when it comes to measured media. The company spent $171 million last year according to TNS Media Intelligence. By comparison, Pfizer spent $1 billion, GlaxoSmithKline spent $861 million, Novartis $560 million and Merck $412 million.

The move also comes with curious timing on another level. On June 15, the company agreed to pay $300 million in a deal to defer federal prosecution of a conspiracy charge that stems from an accounting scandal. The U.S. Attorney's office in New Jersey said the investigation is ongoing and that more charges are possible.

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