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FDA cites misleading drug ads on Web

Bloomberg News / April 4, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Biogen Idec Inc., Pfizer Inc., Sanofi-Aventis SA, and 11 other drug makers were cited by US regulators for "misleading" ads on Internet search engines.

The Food and Drug Administration faulted the 14 companies for failing to identify product names and side effects associated with the drugs in sponsored search results, according to information posted yesterday on the agency's website. The FDA sent letters ordering the companies to halt the ads.

Companies and interest groups pay search engine operators such as Google Inc. to post links to their websites in a sidebar after someone types in a related search term. With drug makers, the sponsored links usually include a headline and short blurb about the relevant medical condition or product.

"For promotional materials to be truthful and nonmisleading, they must contain risk information in each part as necessary to qualify any claims made about the drug," the FDA wrote in one of its letters.

With Cambridge-based Biogen Idec, links to the company's Tysabri website appear after searching for information on "multiple sclerosis." One link advertises Tysabri as a "multiple sclerosis treatment that's different from the others," but it fails to mention it isn't for all patients or that it may cause deadly brain infections, the FDA said.

"Their casual approach to Tysabri treatment is extraordinary in light of the potentially lethal risks of the drug and the stringent controls over its distribution," the agency said in its letter to Biogen.

Biogen didn't immediately return a voice-mail message left after business hours.

Other companies to receive letters were Cephalon Inc., Merck & Co., Roche Holding AG, Bayer AG, Johnson & Johnson, Forest Laboratories Inc., Eli Lilly & Co., Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH, Genentech Inc., GlaxoSmithKline PLC, and Novartis AG.