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WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va.-Over-the-counter drug marketers want a direct dialogue with the American people.

The concern is that healthcare reform is creating an uncaring, profit-hungry image of the industry. So the Nonprescription Drug Manufacturers Association decided at its annual meeting here last week to run the first advertising campaign in its 100-plus years.

The estimated $2 million effort will run as two eight-page inserts in the Reader's Digest Association's flagship Reader's Digest and its special interest titles American Health and New Choices late this year or early next.

The supplements, to be prepared by Reader's Digest without the help of an ad agency, focus on such topics as how to best use specific drugs, the cost savings of OTC products and safety.

"It's not really an ad campaign so much as a public education effort," said Jack Walden, senior VP. "We want to stay ahead of any problems that might come upon this industry because of reform. We want to talk to `influentials' outside the Beltway so we have more understanding and support as things do come up."

Judging from discussions at the meeting, healthcare reform still strikes fear in the hearts of drug marketers everywhere. Acquisitions, downsizing and government scrutiny have created a somber mood.

"I've been in this industry for over 20 years," said one major marketer. "But I've never felt the insecurity I've experienced over the last two years."

Still, in presentations and corridor talk, many noted the new opportunities being created for OTC drugs.

"There's no question OTCs can be a key way to contain costs; they're less expensive than prescription drugs," said William Harrison, a chief legal officer for Marion Merrell Dow. "If people can self-medicate, they can keep out of hospitals, they can avoid doctor visits, etc."

The association estimates that of the $903 billion spent on healthcare in 1993, about $13.3 billion, less than 1.5%, was for non-prescription drugs. The NDMA, quoting Neilsen Marketing Research figures, said non-prescription drug sales last year were up 9% but off 1992's peak increase of 11.9%.

Former Food & Drug Administration Commissioner Arthur Hayes Jr. noted: "The American people want changes in their healthcare. They demand empowerment. Your industry can become a very important player" as long as the advertising is honest and includes all the information on a given drug.

NDMA Chairman David Collins agreed.

"I believe that when the [healthcare] debate subsides, our industry will emerge as more important to healthcare in this country-and more recognized for its importance," he said.

He said the NDMA's new ad campaign will be directed at city council and school board members, plus other local leaders, so "they can be the first to understand our story about the access, affordability and opportunity of today's system of selfcare [through OTCs]-and tell others."

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