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Pfizer to resume airing ads for Celebrex

April 26; 2007

By Julie Schmit, USA TODAY

Pfizer (PFE) plans to launch a 2½-minute TV commercial Monday for arthritis painkiller Celebrex, which has been off TV for more than two years due to safety concerns about drugs in its class.

The spot is five times as long as most TV ads. Pfizer says the time is needed to explain Celebrex's risks and benefits and to dispel confusion. Many consumers wrongly assume it was withdrawn with Vioxx, a similar drug, in 2004, Pfizer says.

The ad also points out that prescription-strength ibuprofen and naproxen — Celebrex's chief rivals — carry similar government-mandated warnings about cardiovascular risk and that they, too, pose risks to stomachs and intestines.

"It's one of the longest TV ads I've ever heard of," says Louis Morris, an ex-Food and Drug Administration official who monitored drug ads and is now an industry consultant.

The return of Celebrex to TV follows its financial comeback. Celebrex sales hit $3.3 billion in 2004 then dropped 48% in the year after Vioxx's withdrawal. Last year, Celebrex sales were $2 billion. Still, it ranks behind ibuprofen and naproxen in arthritis prescriptions, according to market tracker Verispan. Before the Vioxx recall, Celebrex was ahead of naproxen but behind ibuprofen.

The FDA in 2005 reiterated its belief that Celebrex's benefits outweighed its risks, even though it was in the same class of drugs as Vioxx. The Merck drug was withdrawn after studies showed increased heart attack and stroke risk in some users. The FDA in 2005 also required its strongest warning on Celebrex and prescription-strength ibuprofen, naproxen and other NSAIDs, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

Pfizer agreed to halt consumer ads for Celebrex after the Vioxx recall and before the FDA cited Pfizer for downplaying risks and overstating benefits of Celebrex and another painkiller, Bextra, in several ads, including a 27-minute infomercial that named Pfizer but not the drugs. Print ads for Celebrex returned last year. Bextra was pulled from the market in 2005 after the FDA said its risks exceeded its benefits.

The new Celebrex ad, "Understand the risks. See the benefits," shows a man bending, riding a bike, fishing and dancing. Risks are mentioned early. Many drug ads have been criticized for giving risk information only at the end.

"They do a responsible job," says Steven Nissen, chair of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, who saw the ad but favors a ban on consumer drug ads. In 2005, the industry adopted guidelines to improve consumer ads.

Long drug ads won't become the norm, says Mark Bard, president of marketing consulting firm Manhattan Research. "This is a unique situation," he says. "You're basically trying to re-brand a familiar brand."

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