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BODY WATCH : Pitching Prescription Drugs to the Public


If you read TV Guide, People or other publications, you've probably spotted the trend: Ads that urge you to ask your doctor about a specific prescription drug. They seem to be popping up everywhere.

Most often advertised are treatments for chronic conditions such as arthritis and allergies. Until recently, these ads were likely to be seen mainly in medical or trade journals.

A Growing Trend: This trend "has taken off in the last two years," says Styli Engel, editor of Med Ad News, a trade publication in West Trenton, N.J. "This year, especially, it's been booming."

At least 15 brand-name prescription drugs are being advertised in major national publications, she estimates. Here's a sampling:

* Seldane-D and Claritin, prescription allergy remedies. Ads for both promise not to put users to sleep.

* Hytrin, a remedy to treat enlarged prostate glands in older men and possibly postpone surgery.

* DayPro and Relafen, both arthritis medicines.

Some ads include an 800 number to call for information and sometimes coupons.

What's the Motive?Pharmaceutical companies are trying to make consumers aware of alternative treatments, Engel says. "Sometimes (the ads) even make them aware they have a disease and that they have some power (over treatment decisions)."

Those with chronic conditions often wonder if a different drug might be more effective, require less frequent doses or have fewer side effects.

A spokesman for SmithKline Beecham, which advertises the anti-inflammatory drug Relafen, says about a third of arthritis patients surveyed are not pleased with their current medicine because it doesn't work well enough or has side effects.

"People with arthritis are very sophisticated," says Pam Rasmussen, spokesman for Searle, which makes DayPro. Most patients, she says, "know there are a lot of different medicines with small differences."

The Goal: "The last thing we're trying to do is take the decision-making power away from the doctors," says Steve Andrzejewski of Schering Plough, product manager for Claritin. Its ads always encourage consumers to ask their health-care professional, he says. The goal, he and others say, is to jump-start communication between doctors, pharmacists and patients.

Some pharmaceutical companies alert doctors before placing an ad. Before starting the DayPro campaign, Searle did a mailing to physicians.

Pharmacist and Physician Input: Pharmacists and physicians have mixed reactions.

"I think advertising prescription drugs directly to consumers is strictly a profit-oriented motive," says John Dabbs, pharmacist-owner of Greenfield Pharmacy in Vista. "It has considerably less to do with communication to the patient." Dabbs isn't suggesting further government regulation, but improved industry regulation of its own advertising.

"I think it's a good trend," counters Dr. Gerald Klein, an allergist in Vista and Escondido whose patients occasionally bring in ads for specific drugs. When they do, he sits down with them to discuss the medicine.

Many people don't realize the range of products available, says Klein, also an associate clinical professor of medicine and pediatrics at UC Irvine and UC San Diego.

"The doctor still writes the prescription," Klein adds. The ads can simply help open dialogue, he finds.

Buyer Beware: Critics of the trend point out that the ads' fine-print warnings and information, required by the Food and Drug Administration, can confuse and even scare readers. Included are warnings, precautions and possible side effects, however remote. Relafen, for example, lists dozens of possible adverse reactions with an incidence less than 1% that are "probably" causally related. On that list are anorexia, anxiety, weight gain and abnormal vision, among other problems.

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