World number one drugmaker Pfizer is reining in its direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising activities, in response to new guidelines laid down last month by the US body representing the research-based pharmaceutical Industry [[03/08/05b]] [[25/07/05b]].

Pfizer has pledged to communicate with doctors about new drugs at least six months before starting DTC ad campaigns, to give them time to become familiar with the products before patients start asking about them. The company will also make it clear in ads that a doctor may recommend another product, and target its ads only to appropriate audiences. For example, Pfizer will make sure ads for its erectile dysfunction drug Viagra (sildenafil) do not appear where children can see them.

Pressure to tighten up DTC advertising emerged in the wake of Merck & Co's withdrawal of its blockbuster painkiller, Vioxx (rofecoxib) [[01/10/04a]], which has led to claims that the firm's marketing and advertising of the drug was fraudulent and misrepresented the drug's safety and efficacy [[01/08/05a]]. Pfizer was also asked to cease DTC advertising for its similar product Celebrex (celecoxib) while a potential link to the side effects that led to the demise of Vioxx were investigated [[22/02/05c]]

Pfizer’s new DTC strategy is very close to the guidelines drawn up by the Pharmaceutical research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) – unsurprising as Karen Katen, president of Pfizer Human Health, is currently chairing the Industry group. The company has committed to seeking review from the US Food and Drug Administration of all new DTC TV ad campaigns, and those that have major changes, for comment in advance of airing. It will also use more disease awareness campaigns, which do not mention specific products.

Bristol-Myers Squibb was the first company to step forward on the DTC advertising issue, saying earlier this year that it would wait at least 12 months before promoting new products to the public [[15/06/05e]]. But some groups are unhappy that the Industry is allowed to self-regulate in this area, and would prefer DTC advertising to be under direct FDA control, with all ads submitted through a formal review process.

After the PhRMA published its guidelines, consumer group Public Citizen said the move was a “meaningless attempt to fool people into believing the guidelines are stronger than they really are." Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, said that there had been an 85% fall in FDA actions to stop illegal drug ads from 1998 to 2004, and that this had encouraged the Industry to persist in “illegal, but successful, ad campaigns.”

DTC spending by the pharmaceutical industry in the USA totalled nearly $4.5 billion dollars in 2004, its highest-ever yearly total, according to data released in April by market research group Kalorama.