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The marketing battle over heartburn is about to get hotter.

Glaxo Wellcome's prescription antacid Zantac has received Food & Drug Administration advisory committee recommendations to soon join the $1 billion over-the-counter fray. Zantac currently is the top selling U.S. prescription drug, with sales of $1.64 billion in 1994, ccording to Dun & Bradstreet Corp.'s IMS America.

Once it gets full FDA approval, Zantac will be the third OTC switch among H2 blockers, joining Johnson & Johnson/Merck's Pepcid AC, which raced to stores in just six weeks, and SmithKline Beecham's Tagamet HB, approved in late June (AA, May 29). (Tagamet will not reach stores until this fall; Pepcid sales information is not yet available.)

Zantac came from behind a bit, since it and Eli Lilly/American Home Products' Axid weren't expected to be reviewed by the FDA so soon. Still, many believe being third won't be a handicap for Zantac, to be marketed as Zantac 75. Axid continues to await approval.

"Conventional marketing wisdom says the advantage is to be first," said David Williams, a consultant with New England Consulting Group, Westport, Conn. But first on the market doesn't always translate to first-place within a category, he said.

"They're going to be the biggest. They have the name recognition and the doctor preference," said Mike Perlmutter, senior consultant, pharmaceutical group, Kline & Co., Fairfield, N.J.

But while "Zantac is a powerful name in prescriptions, I don't think their marketing clout can compete with J&J/Merck or even SmithKline," said Don Stuart, partner at Cannondale Associates, Wilton, Conn.

Marketing for H2 blockers, which prevent the formation of stomach acid, will be intense. J&J/Merck said it is committing $100 million to marketing, with Compton Partners, Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, handling network TV spots that broke May 21.

SKB and Glaxo Wellcome-through a partnership with Warner Lambert-are promising competitive support. Tagamet ads will break Aug. 28 from Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, New York.

Once approved, Zantac, which has been handled by William Douglas McAdams, New York, for prescription advertising, will be passed to J. Walter Thompson USA, New York, for consumer advertising and Thomas G. Ferguson Associates, Parsippany, N.J., for professional education.

As the oldest H2 blocker (introduced in '76), Tagamet led among prescription stomach remedies through December 1994 with 237 million, followed by 12-year-old Zantac at 192 million and Pepcid at 18 million. Tagamet lost its U.S. patent last year and prescriptions fell dramatically; Zantac's protection lasts through 2002.

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