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Drug Makers Aiming Straight for Consumers' Watery Eyes

Pharmaceuticals: As regulations have eased, the allergy pitches have increased. El Nino hasn't hurt, either.

April 02, 1998|DIANE SEO | Diane Seo is a regular contributor to The Times

Allergy drug makers have an unusual ally this year as they launch their spring advertising campaigns: El Nino.

Soggy conditions courtesy of the weather pattern have increased pollen and mold counts, heightening the misery of the estimated 40 million people in the U.S. who are fighting seasonal allergies. And more sneezing and watery eyes means potentially greater sales for prescription allergy remedies Claritin, Allegra and Zyrtec, as they enter their first spring season with loosened rules for TV advertising.

Although the national campaigns don't make mention of El Nino, the drug manufacturers are bombarding consumers with ads showing sniffle-free skiers, hang gliders and hot-air balloonists gliding through pollen-rich meadows under blue skies.

A series of Claritin commercials and print ads was recently launched, in addition to a print/TV campaign targeting Spanish speakers. Zyrtec plans to debut its print and TV ads within the next few weeks. And Allegra recently introduced updated ads, aired its first radio spot, refurbished its Web site by creating a "virtual village," and created an 800 number for allergy sufferers interested in getting daily pollen counts.

"We believe our new ad campaign raises the bar even higher in this very competitive market," said Jan Creidenberg, Allegra's product manager at Hoechst Marion Roussel in Kansas City, Mo. "Lots of dollars are being invested in direct-to-consumer advertising because there is tremendous clutter in the market and everyone needs a breakthrough campaign."

The ads continue to drive consumers to their doctors, from whom they demand the drugs by name--a trend that has dramatically boosted sales but also aggravated many doctors.

"On the plus side, some of the ads have educational information," said physician Gillian Shepherd, chair of public education for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. "But I've had a vast increase of patients questioning the treatments they're on and wondering why they're not getting some wonder drug. Physicians are spending inordinate amounts of time explaining why they're not prescribing these so-called wonder drugs."

Last year, the three leading manufacturers of non-sedating prescription antihistamines spent $186 million to advertise their products, an increase of $79 million from 1996, according to Competitive Media Reporting. Analysts say that figure is likely to rise again this year.

The battle in the $2-billion-a-year market pits Schering-Plough's leading remedy, Claritin, against Hoechst's Allegra and Pfizer's Zyrtec. Because only a fraction of those experiencing allergy symptoms seek prescription remedies, the companies know there is great potential to win over new customers.

Five Claritin products dominate the market. Of all the antihistamine prescriptions written in the United States, 67% are for Claritin. Allegra comes in second with 16%, followed by Zyrtec with 14%, according to IMS America, which compiles pharmaceutical statistics.

But all three manufacturers are seeing strong sales growth of their allergy drugs, a fact they largely attribute to the increased direct-to-consumer marketing.

In the past, pharmaceutical companies concentrated their marketing on physicians through medical journal advertisements and by visits from sales representative. But with consumers taking more interest in their health options, drug makers in recent years have tapped into the captive consumer audience.

Last year, Schering-Plough spent $68.4 million on advertising for Claritin, while Pfizer's ad bill for Zyrtec reached $53.5 million and Hoechst spent $64.2 million on Allegra.

At the same time, Claritin sales increased 50%, from $1.2 billion in 1996 to $1.7 billion last year. Zyrtec sales in North America grew 81% last year to $265 million, and Allegra's hit $214 million during its first full year on the market.

Direct-to-consumer drug advertising took a big turn last August, when the Food and Drug Administration relaxed restrictions on television advertising.

Previously, manufacturers could mention a brand name in TV ads, but not the ailment the drug was designed to fight. Now they can use such ads to tell consumers what specific drugs do, as long as they also disclose the most common side effects and ways to get more detailed information.

The new rules have resulted in a wave of drug commercials, with those for allergy medications leading the way. Doctors say that while patients are learning about the availability of allergy treatments, too many of them are buying into advertising messages.

"I don't think it's appropriate when patients make decisions about their medical care based on consumer advertising," said Gary Rachelefsky, a UCLA medical school professor and president of the Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. "Medicine should not be a commodity."

Also, because health insurance companies do not cover all drugs, physicians must spend time convincing their patients that non-advertised medications can be just as effective.

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