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Getting drug ads to your TV faster

Helen Palmer Nov 21, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: You’d like to think government regulators are above all that distasteful money stuff. That they exercise their oversight without an eye on the cash register. And to a very large extent they do. They keep consumer products safe and financial markets humming along pretty well. But there’s a new deal in the works between the drug industry and the Food and Drug Administration. Big pharma already pays the agency to speed up review and approval of its products. Now drugmakers will fork over extra cash to get their television ads cleared faster. From the Marketplace Health Desk at WGBH, Helen Palmer has more.

HELEN PALMER: Neither the drug industry nor the FDA would comment, but some of the negotiators did talk to Steve Usdin of the trade group BioCentury.

STEVE USDIN: The FDA’s goal, as I understand it, is to raise about $6.2 million a year for reviewing direct-to-consumer advertising.

The agency will charge about $41,000 for each ad it reviews, and will use the cash to hire more staff. The FDA plans to review TV ads within 45 days. Industry consultants like Louis Morris welcome this new arrangement. Morris used to work for the FDA’s Divison of Drug Marketing and Advertising. He calls this a logical continuation of the current system, where the industry pays the FDA for extra staff to speed the review of drug applications.

LOUIS MORRIS: Everybody comes out ahead but it’s not perfect. The system can’t be perfect because we don’t understand how advertisements are interpreted by consumers.

Under this new agreement the FDA will set up a pilot program to analyze how well consumers do interpret both the benefits and risks of advertised drugs. Other observers, like Steve Schondelmeyer of the University of Minnesota, see particular risks in extending user fees.

STEVE SCHONDELMEYER: But it does create sort of a provider-client relationship where the agency begins to view that they’re working for the industry that they’re regulating, moreso than they’re working for the public as a whole.

Notably lacking from discussion of this latest arrangement, says Schondelmeyer, is any input from the public or consumer groups. They’ll have their chance, though. When the agreement’s final —next month, probably — it’ll be posted for public comment.

In Boston, I’m Helen Palmer for Marketplace.

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