The giant United States pharmaceutical industry is taking new - and controversial - steps to advertise prescription drugs directly to consumers. The moves include, for the first time, an attempt by at least one company to promote prescription drugs on television. Such actions are stirring debate within the industry as well as evoking protests from consumer and other groups.
The outcome of the controversy is likely to alter current patterns of drug merchandising. But critics predict that a flood of direct-to-consumer ads could also adversely affect public health - boosting industry profits by increasing drug usage in America.
Already the debate has caused the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the federal drug regulatory agency, to call for a temporary moratorium of any direct-to-consumer marketing while it considers new, streamlined regulations. Current laws do not directly prohibit the advertisement of prescription drugs to consumers, but federal guidelines make those commercials virtually impossible.
''Prescription-drug marketing is at a crossroads in this country,'' says Marsha Fanucci, an industry consultant with Arthur D. Little Inc.
Sparking the industry reexamination are two recent events: the airing on network television of the first FDA-approved prescription-drug commercial and the granting of special federal approval to the Cable Health Network (CHN) to solicit prescription-drug advertisers for a new cable series.
''It's been obvious for the last couple of years that drug companies have edged closer to direct-to-consumer advertising,'' says FDA's William Grigg.
''Regulations currently in place are not terribly applicable to a 60-second television commercial,'' adds FDA Drug Advertising Regulation Branch chief, Kenneth Feather. ''Some sort of modification will have to exist for that media.''
The burgeoning US pharmaceutical industry - statistics show that sales were up $2 billion from 1980 to 1981 - has traditionally targeted its multimillion dollar marketing efforts at medical professionals. However, observers cite increased consumer demand for health news, greater numbers of drugs being reclassified as nonprescription, and stiffening industry competition as reasons for the new marketing trend.
''The American pharmaceutical industry is being pushed into consumer advertising whether it likes it or not,'' says industry analyst Richard Vietor of Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. ''Drug categories are getting crowded. Companies and products are beginning to overlap. Stimulating patient demand suddenly becomes important.''
One of the drug companies most aggressively testing the marketing waters is Boots Pharmaceuticals, an American subsidiary of Britain's Boots Company, one of the world's largest prescription drug manufacturers. After shaking up the industry last year by offering the first consumer rebate coupon for a prescription drug, Boots has this month launched the first FDA-approved prescription drug ad campaign on local network television in Tampa, Fla. Additionally, CHN has signed eight drug manufacturers as charter advertisers for its new series, ''Physicians Journal Update,'' debuting across the country this month.
While some drug manufacturers remain divided on the issue - several companies fear antitrust violations and many question the advertising's cost-effectiveness - consumer organizations, senior citizens associations, and health groups have taken strong anti-advertising stands. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) has issued a position paper to its 14 million members - the largest group of prescription-drug users in the country.
''Ads by nature are meant to increase sales,'' says AARP's Judy Brown. ''We've long been critical of the drug industry for spending three times the amount on advertising and promotion than they do on research. Direct-to-consumer ads would create a demand for a product not based on need.''
While no professional associations have yet taken a position, the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association cites recent polls indicating patients want more consumer information on prescription drugs. But another study by the American Medical Association says more than 60 percent of physicians and pharmacists oppose promoting these drugs directly to the public, and less than 8 percent approve.
''In many other countries, advertising prescription drugs on TV is simply against the law,'' says Ann Everett of the Consumer Federation of America. ''This is already a pill-popping society. We don't need to encourage that.''