Drug marketing: DTC ads influence majority of consumers, say doctors

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Direct-to-consumer advertising spending for drugs dropped slightly last year, but it's still a lightning rod. Detractors charge that TV and print ads drive up health-care costs, and a new survey finds 47% of doctors feel pressure from patients to prescribe advertised drugs.

"We are an industry under heavy scrutiny," said Sharon Fairley, executive director-consumer marketing and trademark development at Pharmacia Corp. "We need to demonstrate a better job of communicating the economic value of pharmaceuticals."

That statement came during the Strategic Research Institute's Pharmaceutical Global Marketing Summit in Philadelphia last week, where results from the survey on physician attitudes and doctor/patient relationships were released. The survey of 250 general practitioners and 250 specialists was conducted by the Food and Drug Administration's Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising and Communications.

Preliminary findings were mixed. A full 37% of U.S. physicians surveyed said DTC advertising had a somewhat positive effect on their patients and their practice, 28% said there was no effect at all and 27% said DTC advertising had a somewhat negative effect. Only 3% felt it had a very positive effect, and 5% said it had a very negative effect.


The survey was considered an important barometer of physician attitudes on DTC advertising, which is under scrutiny by the federal government for a perceived imbalance between cost of promotion and cost of the drug. The issue figures to be a key topic of discussion and legislation in the 108th session of Congress.

The General Accounting Office "report to Congress was a mixed bag, but the good news is that it showed that health-care companies are spending more on research than advertising," said Dolly A. Judge, senior director-federal relations for Pfizer.

However, she questioned whether the Republican majority in the new Congress is "enough to push through [anti-DTC] policies."

Pharmaceutical companies have argued to both the federal government and to physicians that DTC advertising educates consumers, prompting them to seek treatment when otherwise they would not have. Ironically, the argument heats up as DTC advertising slows, albeit minutely.

Keith Mandia, senior product manager for Newtown, Pa.-based Verispan, a health-care market research company, said DTC spending was in 2001 was $2.774 billion. Based on information through November, 2002, Mr. Mandia estimates 2002 spending to be $2.672 billion.

"There was a decrease in blockbuster drugs," said Mr. Mandia, despite a couple of major ones, including AstraZeneca's Nexium and Pfizer's Zoloft.

ad impact

Though DTC expenditures fell slightly in 2002, Verispan's research showed that nine of the top 10 most requested drugs in physician offices throughout the U.S. were DTC advertised drugs, led by Pfizer's erectile-dysfunction drug Viagra. Of the top 10, only Pharmacia's antidepressant Xanax was not DTC advertised.

In Verispan's own survey of 3,177 physicians, a majority of doctors still preferred to be the only source of communicating product information to patients. That seemed to jibe with the FDA division survey.

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