WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The drug industry is taking more steps to make its consumer marketing more straightforward, including making it clear when actors are used in commercials and other advertisements.
The top lobbying group for the industry, under fire from some lawmakers and consumer groups for aggressive marketing practices, also said on Wednesday that advertisements unsuitable for children should run during television programs or in publications that target adults.
Ads for impotency drugs such as Pfizer Inc's Viagra have drawn the ire of lawmakers and others for their suggestive content. Ads for the company's top-selling cholesterol drug Lipitor featuring artificial heart inventor Dr. Robert Jarvik also came under fire for using an actor in some scenes.
The latest move by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) updates the group's 2005 pledge to rein in advertising in the wake of Merck & Co Inc's Vioxx recall. The pain drug was found to increase heart risks but was widely advertised directly to potential users.
The United States is the only country besides New Zealand that allows drugmakers to target consumers, although some European regulators have weighed whether to lift such bans.
Drugmakers have said advertising is critical to educate consumers and doctors about available treatments.
Critics of PhRMA's guidelines point out they are voluntary and not enforceable by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. They also are not necessarily adopted by all drugmakers and exclude other types of medical companies, such as those that make devices or over-the-counter drugs and other products.
The FDA regulates industry advertising but has said that it lacks the staff and funding to review every piece of marketing companies put out.
Democratic lawmakers have been especially skeptical of pharmaceutical advertisements that directly target consumers and have used hearings to highlight some worrisome practices, such as using flashy graphics and other techniques to distract from a drug's risks.
"On one hand, PhRMA has taken our Committee's concerns seriously ... on the other hand, some of these changes are merely a rewording of prior policy that does nothing to increase consumer protection," said Rep. Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat who heads the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee's investigative panel.
"Our investigation will continue, and we will be keeping a watchful eye on how well the industry follows these guidelines," he said in a statement.
Earlier this week, Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat who will take over the Energy and Commerce Committee in January, said he would support efforts to give the FDA power to ban consumer advertisements for the first few years that a new medicine is sold on the U.S. market.
PhRMA said it revised its guidelines to incorporate feedback from members of Congress, physicians and others. They will go into effect March 2, 2009,
"Our Guiding Principles help ensure that DTC advertising appropriately and accurately conveys important information about medical conditions, medicines and other treatment options," said PhRMA President and Chief Executive Billy Tauzin, a former Republican member of Congress from Louisiana.
In 2005, the group urged companies to submit their ads to the FDA for review before using them, among other advice.
PhRMA also said it would later announce on its website which companies adopt its guidelines.
AstraZeneca said in a statement that it supports the new measures and has already incorporated some of them.
Reporting by Susan Heavey, editing by Matthew Lewis