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Prescriptions Increase as Drugmakers Spend More on Ads

Critics: Ads Drive Up Costs and Lead People to Pop Pills They Don't Need

By Julie Appleby

Drug companies, in the face of growing consumer criticism over pricing, spent more than $2.1 billion in 2001 hawking their products directly to consumers, a 17% increase over 1999.

And Americans bought more drugs.

The number of prescriptions written rose 6% for the full year, while industrywide U.S. sales jumped about 15%, from $126 billion to $145 billion.

The actual advertising figure will be higher than $2.1 billion because those numbers reflect only the first 10 months of the year, according to data gathered by IMS Health and Competitive Media Reporting, health care information companies.

And the advertising figures don't include several hundred million spent in medical journals.

The increase in advertising comes as employers, consumers and lawmakers debate ways to control spending on prescription drugs, now the fastest-rising component of health care inflation.

Spending on drugs is rising for several reasons, including new, more expensive drugs coming on the market, an aging population and price increases.

IMS Health reports that prices of drugs rose 3.9% last year.

Drug industry critics fear that consumer advertising increases costs and may lead some patients to take drugs they don't need, or opt for high-cost treatments when low-cost generic or over-the-counter remedies may be equally effective.

''They are artificially inflating the demand for drugs,'' says Ron Pollack of advocacy group Families USA. ''Typically what gets advertised are brand-name drugs. There may be a generic drug out there that is as good for patients, but they're unaware of that drug.''

Pollack says that as a result, ''by pressuring doctors for a brand-name drug, they are paying considerably more than they would if the physician prescribed a generic.''

Industry defends ads

But the drug industry counters that advertising is good for patients.

''Consumer advertising empowers patients,'' by getting them to talk with their doctors, says Alan Holmer, president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. ''It helps solve problems of underdiagnosis and treatment and still leaves the prescribing decision up to the doctor.''

Data from the first 10 months of 2000 show that Merck led the pack, spending more than $318 million on advertising. Merck spent $145 million alone touting its new arthritis treatment, Vioxx, the most heavily advertised drug on the U.S. market.

The advertising may have paid off for Merck, as sales of Vioxx rose 308%, bringing in $1.5 billion.

Rival arthritis treatment Celebrex by Pfizer also was among the top 10 most heavily advertised drugs. The company saw sales of that product rise 52% to $2.2 billion.

Together, the companies spent $206 million on advertising the new drugs, which claim to ease pain without the stomach problems associated with older remedies on the market.

But drug firms spent the most to advertise drugs in the hotly competitive allergy market. Four drugs alone accounted for $294 million in advertising: Schering-Plough's Claritin, GlaxoSmithKline's Flonase, Pfizer's Zyrtec and Aventis' Allegra.

Others on the top 10 list include AstraZeneca's acid stomach medication Prilosec, Pfizer's sexual function treatment Viagra, GlaxoSmithKline's antidepressant Paxil and newcomer to the top 10 list, American Home Product's menopause treatment Prempro.

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