Chantix Ad Campaign Doesn’t Name Names, Leaves Out Side Effect Info

<"">Chantix maker Pfizer Inc. has hit upon an unusual marketing strategy for the smoking cessation drug – running ads that never even name the drug.  According to The Wall Street Journal, such “unbranded product advertising” is becoming increasingly common in pharmaceutical marketing.  These types of promotions are growing in popularity because there is no requirement that they include important safety information consumers should know.

Anyone who watches television has seen Pfizer’s ad for Chantix, although they might not know it. In the spot, a middle-age woman tells the camera, “At 6:30 in the morning, I have a cigarette. And then another on my way to work.” Viewers are then directed to, where they can receive information on smoking cessation. Visitors to the site find a link to a Chantix site that contains information on the antismoking drug, including the negative side effects.

Pfizer is not alone in using this type of advertising.  SonofiAventis has been running a compelling TV spot that leads viewers to a Web site called The site promotes Ambien, a sleeping aid sold by the company.

Drug companies like these ads because the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) does not require that they list safety information like side effects.  Advertisements that mention a medication by name must include the reading of possible side effect. Drug company marketing execs claim that reading off side effects takes up too much time in an expensive 30 or 60 second spot.  But when a drug is the subject of safety concerns, these rules can make unbranded advertising an even more attractive option for pharmaceutical companies.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Pfizer first aired the “My Time to Quit” ads in 2006, shortly after it came on the market.  But as Chantix sales rose, the company started running ads that mentioned the drug by name, and dropped the unbranded campaign.

That only changed a few months ago.  Pfizer resurrected “My Time to Quit” in June, after concerns were raised over Chantix side effects.  The move came after the non-profit Institute for Safe Medication Practices issued a report detailing Chantix adverse event reports to the FDA.  The report, which was released in May, specifically cited  224 reports of potential heart-rhythm disturbances, 372 reports of possible movement disorders and 544 reports of likely glycemic problems, including diabetes.  There were also reports of a dozen traffic accidents linked to Chantix.

The Institute’s report followed two FDA safety alerts – one in November 2007 and another in February 2008 – that warned Chantix had been associated with suicidal thoughts and other psychiatric side effects.  At the time of the February alert, the FDA asked Pfizer to elevate the prominence of safety information regarding such side effects to the warnings and precautions section of the Chantix prescribing information, or labeling.

Some consumer advocates believe that leaving out safety information misleads consumers.  Drug companies counter that they are only trying to increase awareness of a disease or treatment, not push a particular medication.     The increasing use of unbranded drug ads will doubtless fuel the debate, and that could get the attention of lawmakers.  Bob Ehrlich of DTC Perspectives, which monitors direct to consumer advertising by drug makers, told The Wall Street Journal that while the ads are clever,  “There’s a risk they could rouse congressional ire over cute commercials that don’t emphasize medicine.”

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