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Celebrity endorsement on the rack

The FDA has opened a public debate on whether the rich and famous should promote prescription drugs

Scrutiny over the deployment of celebrities to endorse prescription medicines publicly in the US has intensified as detractors rally towards a ban of powerful direct-to-consumer (DTC) marketing for the first three years of a new productís life.

While the value of such campaigns to the pharma industry is in little doubt ñ according to findings from the Kaiser Family Foundation Study companies make between $4.20 and $10 in extra sales on every $1 spent ñ the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has encouraged people to voice their opinions in a public hearing this week.

These meetings involving the public, the industry, healthcare professionals, consumers and insurers, could result in significant changes to the regulations governing drug advertising in the US. The key question is: should pharma firms hold back on promoting new drugs through celebrity backing and other DTC activities until more is known about the potential side effects?

Some members of Congress wish to see a ban on product-related promotional material for the first 21 months following the entry on to the marketplace of a new drug; a move that threatens to wipe at least $9bn off pharmaís sales figures, according to an analyst at ThinkEquity Partners.

Opponents of the plan contend that the public and healthcare practitioners should be made aware of and educated about new drugs that show great promise or that tackle the biggest killers, cancer and heart disease.

President of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), Billy Tauzin, said of an experimental cervical cancer drug: "I want my daughter to know about that right awayÖ If itís a medicine that makes a difference in whether youíre going to get cancer or not, you probably ought to get it out a little quicker."

However, a key issue over which the FDA is seeking resolve is whether testimonials by celebrities can even be misleading with regard to drug safety.

Americaís habit of paying high profile celebrities large sums of cash to extol the virtues of specific products through any and all media channels has in the past landed the drugs industry in hot water. Some have claimed that adverts for Vioxx featuring Olympic athlete Dorothy Hamill, who suffers from arthritis, boosted the number of prescriptions prior to the drugís withdrawal over heart attack and stroke claims.

Yet, pharma continues to invest in match-making famous faces with brands and disease awareness initiatives. Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) has secured cancer survivor and seven-times winner of the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong, as a face for its corporate brand as well as its print advertising campaign.

The company is keen that the FDA makes a clear distinction between using celebrities to endorse wholesome healthcare efforts and the practice of simply picking a crowd-pleaser in order to boost drug sales.

"Lance has been used in corporate advertising relative to the BMS brand, not in product advertising. We believe there is a significant difference," company spokesman Tony Plohoros commented in The Boston Globe.

2nd September 2008

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