Celebrating a drug's return with caution

A prescription bottle label for Pfizer's Lipitor

KAI RYSSDAL: Ads for Celebrex are back after a two year absence. Pfizer makes the arthritis drug. It works in the same way as Vioxx, which Merck pulled off the market in 2004. Helen Palmer reports from the Marketplace Health desk at WGBH, Pfizer is taking great care bringing Celebrex back to the small screen.


HELEN PALMER: Ads for the super aspirin Celebrex used to celebrate the things the drug lets you do pain-free.

But not any more. Tonight's ad runs two and a half minutes, and much of it's devoted to the potential dangers of Celebrex and other anti-inflammatory drugs like it called NSAIDs.

CELEBREX AD: Any prescription NSAID, including Celebrex, may increase the risk of heart attack or stroke, which can lead to death.

STEVE ROMANO: It's unprecedented in that the risks are talked about right upfront.

Pfizer's Steve Romano says there'd been so much bad publicity about NSAIDs after Vioxx was withdrawn, they needed a marketing makeover.

ROMANO: You'll see, when you see the ad, that it is a very upfront, thorough discussion of those potential risks.

Jon Schommer of the University of Minnesota calls this a clever strategy that could build credibility. But it may not work — because of all the bad publicity surrounding these drugs.

JON SCHOMMER: A lot of people will still say, "I see through what you're trying to do, I still don't believe it. I'm not persuaded."

Steve Schondelmeyer, who teaches pharmaceutical economics at the University of Minnesota, thinks people might underestimate the risk because Pfizer compares Celebrex with drugs you can buy over the counter — like Ibuprofen.

And there's another unfavorable comparison.

STEVE SCHONDELMEYER: Cost is not talked about here. Price of the drug and relative price. And this drug is substantially more expensive than the other drugs they're comparing to in terms of safety.

Celebrex costs around $2 a pill for the lowest dosage, compared with a few cents for generic Ibuprofen.

Andrew Casper of the pharmaceutical newsletter The Pink Sheet says the ad could help Pfizer claw back more of the $3.3 billion market Celebrex had in 2004. The Vioxx scandal slashed that in half.

ANDREW CASPER: Last year, Celebrex grew 18 percent. Which means that Pfizer's message is getting through to consumers, and to prescribers as well.

Casper says the ads creating so much buzz, he sees a big boost to Celebrex.

In Boston, I'm Helen Palmer for Marketplace.

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