Viagra decision causes confusion

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Viagra's TV ads are off the air, courtesy of a complaint by the FDA that commercials didn't explain what the pill did or what side effects could be. Meanwhile, Levitra and Cialis run ads pushing their prescriptions for hot sex. Drug sellers wonder why regulators picked out Viagra, worry about who's next and want to know whether the FDA is changing the rules. The FDA needs to provide some answers.

Marketing of impotency cures has become a frisky business since Levitra (from Bayer AG and GlaxoSmithKline) and Cialis (from Eli Lilly and Icos Corp.) broke Viagra's prescription monopoly last year. Cialis ads talk about when "the time is right." Levitra's ad shows a woman wearing a man's dress shirt, implying to some ad viewers that she and her partner just had a romp. Pfizer in August joined the party with its "Wild Thing" ads and the not particularly subtle slogan, "Get back to mischief."

We'll assume the Food & Drug Administration first and foremost is concerned about safety and efficacy. We'll assume the FDA was not regulating morality when it ordered Pfizer to yank the TV ads.

To be sure, there's a difference between the Viagra ads in question and those from Cialis and Levitra. Rival ads note what they cure; Viagra didn't say that. Then again, Pfizer has spent some $400 million on Viagra ads since 2000. You'd have to be living in a monastery not to know the meaning of Viagra.

Maybe it's time for a fresh discussion on drug advertising, starting with common sense. What do consumers learn from current rules requiring drug sellers to list every potential side effect? When a drug is as widely known as Viagra, is it necessary to explain its purpose?

The FDA has a worthy role to play in pharma marketing. Drugs need regulation; drugmakers need rules. But rules need to be clear and fair. The Viagra matter has industry executives wondering if the rules just changed-and if they're next. The uncertainty is not fair to them or their companies.

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