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AMA calls for limits on drug ads

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Bloomberg News / May 9, 2008

NEW YORK - Drug makers, including Pfizer Inc. and Merck & Co., have deceptively marketed their products to the public, showing the need to limit drug advertisements, lawmakers and the American Medical Association said.

A moratorium should be placed on ads for newly approved drugs until doctors are educated and regulators have signed off on the messages, the medical association, said yesterday at a House subcommittee hearing on drug advertising. Representative Bart Stupak said Congress should consider new restrictions on ads.

Drug makers spent $5.4 billion last year on direct-to-consumer, or DTC, advertising, according to market research firm Nielsen Monitor-Plus. That's a fivefold increase in the decade since rules about the disclosures required in television ads were changed, allowing drug makers to more easily air commercials. Lawmakers said the ads gloss over risks and may cause overprescribing of expensive medicines.

"Congress needs to decide whether the US should continue to be one of two countries in the world that allow DTC ads, and if we continue to allow such advertising, whether any further limits to DTC ads should be required," said Stupak, a Michigan Democrat and head of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on oversight and investigations. "It appears that we need to enforce significant restrictions on DTC ads."

New Zealand is the only other country that allows drug ads on television. Lawmakers criticized New York-based Pfizer, the world's largest drug maker, for using the inventor of an artificial heart, Robert Jarvik, to promote its cholesterol pill Lipitor because he isn't licensed to practice medicine.

They also faulted Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based Merck, and its marketing partner Schering-Plough Corp., for continuing to advertise their cholesterol pill Vytorin while delaying results of a study showing it may work no better than a cheaper pill.

Pfizer, Merck, and Kenilworth, N.J.-based Schering-Plough said the ads contained only information that was supported by research and helped educate patients about medical conditions. Pfizer said Jarvik is a credible spokesman. "Pfizer asked Dr. Jarvik to appear in Lipitor advertisements because he is recognized for his work related to the human heart," said James Sage, a Pfizer senior director.

AMA guidelines discourage doctors from endorsing products and call for disclosure of compensation for those who do, Nancy Nielsen, AMA's president-elect, told the committee. Jarvik received $1.35 million, which wasn't disclosed in the ad, Stupak said.

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