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Hoechst Marion Roussel launched an effort last week to switch users of allergy drug Seldane to sister brand Allegra, while at the same time fighting the Food & Drug Administration over the continued marketing of Seldane in the $1.8 billion prescription allergy market.

Allegra, which first appeared in a TV ad campaign last summer, will as soon as March get a $35 million-plus direct-to-consumer drive pushing the switch.


The "wheat surfer" will reappear on TV; print ads will say: "What would you call a seasonal allergy medicine with the relief of Seldane but with more freedom? Now Allegra is replacing Seldane."

Diane Parks, group product director of respiratory and metabolism at Hoechst, said the spring campaign is expected to move 50% to 75% of Seldane users over to Allegra. Many Seldane users have taken the drug for more than 10 years and will need to be prodded to switch, she added.

"We found we needed to be more directive with Seldane patients," said Ms. Parks.

Before consumer ads break, Hoechst will begin an effort to reach healthcare professionals through trade journal ads, direct mail and sales force calls. The consumer and professional campaigns will be handled by Medicus Group International, New York, a unit of D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles.

The FDA wants to stop sales of Seldane's branded and generic versions. Though Seldane was once the top antihistamine because it was the first to treat allergies without drowsiness, the drug has experienced interactions with antibiotics and antifungals, causing sometimes fatal heart arrhythmias and other problems.

Hoechst has 30 days to challenge the FDA and intends to do so "vigorously," said a spokesman.

The FDA's unusual effort to pull Seldane may cause lost sales but also unintended anxiety to consumers.

Ben Ball, executive director at consultancy Dechert & Hampe, said the FDA effort might make consumers "say they're afraid of the whole category for a while, as they have with analgesics."


Allegra is a reformulated version of Seldane that's being priced 15% lower than market leader Claritin, from Schering-Plough Corp.

One medical professional said that since Allegra is chemically related to Seldane and Claritin has been trouble-free, it will be easier for consumers to just stay with Claritin.

Claritin had $597 million in sales from January through November 1996, said IMS America. No. 2 Seldane hit $189 million, while Pfizer's Zyrtec came on strong with $120.4 million. Allegra, introduced in August 1996, hit $18.2 million in its first four months.

Ms. Parks said that although Hoechst will not be able to match the $50 million in ad spending behind Claritin, "We'll just have to spend smarter and target better."

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