Senate Leader: A New Prescription for Drug Ads

Advertisers and broadcasters worried that restrictions limiting pharmaceutical advertising may be instituted are breathing easier now that Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., is Senate majority leader.

While Frist is a doctor inter ested in passing a prescription-drug bill that will ease the burden of high drug costs on seniors, sources said he is also a strict constitutionalist who believes in protecting free speech.

In the 2002 session of Congress, a prescription-drug bill that did not pass included amendments that placed limitations on TV spots for drugs such as Prevacid and Claritin. Among these restrictions were limiting the deductibility of advertising for pharmaceutical companies.

Ad lobby groups expect pharmaceutical advertising to surface again in Congress’ next session, but they don’t think drug ads are as vulnerable as they were under former Senate leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

“It will be harder to get any restrictions into a final bill,” said Dick O’Brien, evp of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. “But this issue is so hot and topical that until a final bill is passed and the president has signed it, you can’t rest easy.”

Still, the 4A’s and the Association of National Advertisers are concerned that Frist may end up compromising in favor of restrictions to get a bill passed. “He will be severely tested in his first year … and we believe he will be pressured by various medical groups to accept their views,” said Dan Jaffe, the ANA’s evp of government relations.

Frist’s office did not return calls by press time.

Meanwhile, in areas such as tobacco, industry groups may have more reason for concern. Frist has strongly supported tobacco-mar ket ing re strictions, having written legislation adopted by the Food and Drug Administration. But he, in 2000, introduced a proposal to give the FDA jurisdiction over tobacco that several public-advocacy groups opposed because it contained loopholes.

“The hope is it will be physician Frist who tackles tobacco in his new role, not politician Frist,” said Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.