US Pharma Giants Dodge Listing Side Effects in Ads

01 September 2008

WASHINGTON, DC: As the late US chief justice Earl Warren observed: "In civilized life, law floats in a sea of ethics." But the ever-resourceful US pharma  industry has enthusiastically adopted a stratagem that neatly holes Warren's ethical life-raft.

As things stand, US law requires the pharma baronies to list the known side effects of drugs named in advertisements – a commercially inconvenient requirement in that such warnings not only occupy expensive time and space, but sometimes have negative connotations such as disablement or death.

To which the latest solution is to omit the name of the brand from ads - a panacea that is not as Draconian or counter-productive as might first appear.

Take Pfizer's antismoking drug Chantix, for example. During NBC's coverage of the Beijing Olympics last month, Pfizer aired a 60-second commercial in which a middle-age woman confides: "At 6:30 in the morning, I have a cigarette. And then another on my way to work."

As the commercial continues, a voice-over dwells on ways to break the habit, directing viewers to a helpful website, which again touts no brands. It does, however, invite nicotine addicts to "learn about a prescription treatment option" – to be found on another website.

Which leads the wannabe habit-kicker to an unabashed promotional site for Chantix, complete with alarming health warnings of "possible changes in behavior, agitation, depressed mood, suicidal thoughts or actions when attempting to quit smoking while taking or after stopping the product".

Pfizer is not alone in adopting this tactic. A Sanofi-Aventis TV commercial targeting those suffering from sleeplessness, similarly directs viewers to a website called which promotes the company's anti-insomnia pill Ambien

Visitors learn that "in rare cases sleep aids may cause allergic reactions such as swelling of your tongue or throat or shortness of breath or more severe results". Other side effects "may include next-day drowsiness, dizziness and headache". 

These, and other such cases, are all perfectly legal under current Food & Drug Administration rules.

But, warns Bob Ehrlich of DTC Perspectives, which monitors direct-to-consumer advertising by drug makers: "There's a risk [such stratagems] could rouse congressional ire over cute commercials that don't emphasize medicine."

Pfizer spokeswoman Sally Beatty indignantly refutes any suggestion that the company it attempting to duck FDA rules: "The goal of the My Time to Quit campaign is to encourage people to quit smoking.

"[It] is designed to encourage people who are thinking about quitting to speak to their healthcare provider about the benefits of quitting smoking and available treatment options."

The financial rationale is well put by DraftFCB's Rich Gagnon, whose agency has several pharma clients: "Imagine paying millions to run that ad campaign [onTV], and having to use up thirty  seconds to list all the problems."

Data sourced from Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff