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Senator Calls for DTC Drug-Ad Ban

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BOSTON U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R.-Tenn., today called for drug companies to voluntarily restrict direct-to-consumer advertising efforts during new drugs' first two years on the market.

He is also seeking a General Accountability Office review of Food and Drug Administration oversight of prescription drug activities and the industry's spending on such ads.

"In recent years, spending on DTC advertising of prescription drugs has skyrocketed," said Frist, in a statement. "This advertising can lead to inappropriate prescribing and fuel prescription drug spending. It can also oversell benefits and undersell risks. Used appropriately, direct-to-consumer advertising can empower patients without inflating need or distorting medical realities. But research evidence indicates that this blitz in direct marketing has unwittingly led to inappropriate prescribing, which most importantly can compromise patient safety and care."

DTC drug advertising has become a hot-button issue in the past year, with the government ordering ads pulled for several well-known products, including Celebrex, Crestor, Levitra and Zyrtec.

Bristol-Myers Squibb this month said it would cease advertising drugs directly to consumers during their first year on the market [Adweek Online, June 15]. The company spent $140 million on paid media in 2004, per Nielsen Monitor-Plus.

All told, domestic DTC drug-ad spending last year was $4.1 billion, per Nielsen.

"He's really raised the intensity level by quite a few decibels," said Dick O'Brien, evp and director of government relations at trade group the American Association of Advertising Agencies, of Frist's proposals today.

O'Brien said the 4A's believes it is best to let individual industries police themselves, and noted that pharmaceutical companies are expected to release a self-regulatory code within two to four weeks.

That sentiment was echoed by the Association of National Advertisers, which said it "strongly opposes a government imposed across-the-board ban on these ads for two years after the introduction of a new drug on the market."

Dan Jaffe, ANA evp, said, "Many new prescription drugs provide enormous health benefits and may even be life saving. The public at-large would be damaged by not receiving this type of information through advertisements on a timely basis."

In addition to being Senate Majority Leader, Frist is also a physician.