Advertising Companies Expand Role in Drug Development To Steer Research Toward Potential Blockbuster Drugs
Advertising companies, whose television campaigns have helped prescription drugs such as Viagra, Allegra and Vioxx become "billion-dollar products," have begun to expand their role in the development of new treatments, the New York Times reports. Omnicom, Interpublic and WPP, the nation's three largest ad companies, have spent "tens of millions of dollars" to purchase or invest in companies that conduct clinical trials on new treatments. Ad company executives hope to work with scientists to direct research toward treatments that "marketers think could be big sellers" and to develop trials "showing that the drugs have the qualities patients most desire," the Times reports. Ad companies also hope to use the results of the trials to "sway" physicians to prescribe the new treatments. Dr. Arnold Relman, professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School and a former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, said, "You cannot separate the advertising and marketing from the science anymore." The expanded role of ad companies in prescription drug development highlights the "changing face of drug research," the Times reports. In the early 1990s, universities received about 75% of the funds that the pharmaceutical industry spent on research. However, pharmaceutical company executives found the university research system "too slow," and by 2000, the percentage that universities received had decreased to 34%; private research companies received the remainder of the funds.
Although not illegal -- federal law prohibits the promotion of treatments before they receive FDA approval, except in published research or cases of "medical education" -- opponents of the participation of ad companies in prescription drug development raise concerns that "marketers are exploiting the loopholes" in the federal law to build markets for a new treatment before they receive FDA approval, a practice that may lead to a large number of sales of a new treatment "before all of its side effects are known," the Times reports. Opponents also raise concerns that ad companies may prompt physicians to prescribe new treatments for off-label uses. "Doctors are led to prescribe drugs that may not be necessarily worth the money, may not be better than a generic that's already on the market and that patients don't need," Relman said. Ad company executives, however, point out that "doctors are hungry" for information on new treatments and that "scientific trials are tightly regulated." Lloyd Baroody, managing director of Target Research Associates, a division of Interpublic, said, "The implication that we are going to accentuate the good things and may bury the bad things -- there would be nothing in it for us to do that." According to the Times, federal regulators will not likely impose additional restrictions on the role of ad companies in prescription drug development (Petersen, New York Times, 11/22). In a special co-production with the New York Times, PBS' "NOW with Bill Moyers" tonight will include a segment on the expanded role of ad companies in prescription drug development. A transcript of the program is available online. The program's Web site also includes a list of resources for additional information on prescription drug ads. Check local listings for show times (Bogdanich/Petersen, "NOW with Bill Moyers," PBS, 11/22).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.