The pharmaceutical industry unveiled on Tuesday new guidelines for the marketing of medicines to patients, including pledges to educate doctors before beginning consumer campaigns and more clearly outline the risks involved in taking prescription drugs.

“With these principles, we commit ourselves to improving the inherent educational value of advertisements,” Billy Tauzin, president and chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said in a statement. Details of the plan were being announced at a conference in Dallas.

But critics responded that the voluntary code is toothless, and many of its 15 principles—such as presenting information that is accurate and not misleading—are already required by law. The guidelines also lack elements some critics have sought, including a mandatory waiting period for advertising new drugs and restricting when sensitive medicines such as erectile-dysfunction drugs could be advertised.

“This is just an attempt to fool people into thinking something that really isn’t true,” said Sidney Wolfe, the director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. “They are designed as a desperate attempt to fend off real regulation of drug ads.”

Pharmaceutical ads have been under an intense spotlight since Merck & Co. removed its pain reliever Vioxx from the market last year after a study found it increased risk of heart attacks and strokes in patients who took the drug for more than 18 months. Vioxx was heavily marketed, and doctors say the ads may have pushed many patients who really didn’t require the pricey drug to take it, potentially exposing the patients to dangerous side effects.

Advertising has become increasingly commonplace since regulators relaxed rules on television commercials in 1997. Last year, the industry spent $4.02 billion on advertising, up 23% from 2003 and 62% from 2000, according to the consulting firm IMS Health.

But now there is backlash. Last month, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee called for a two-year moratorium on advertising new drugs, saying commercials drive up health-care costs. Thirty-five percent of American adults favor a mandatory ban on consumer ads for new drugs for a limited time, according to a survey conducted by Harris Interactive for the Wall Street Journal Online.

Only 18% of consumers believe pharmaceutical ads can be trusted “most of the time,” according to a study released Friday by the Kaiser Family Foundation. That’s down since 1997, when onethird of people surveyed said you could trust ads most of the time.

Meanwhile, a study by Iposos-Insight Corp. found that consumer response to pharmaceutical advertising has been steadily declining since 2002. Last August, 19% of those surveyed said an ad prompted them to call or visit a doctor. That’s down from 25% in February 2002.

The new guidelines being released in Dallas are designed to restore faith in drug ads as well as the industry’s overall image, which has been battered by product recalls, allegations of hiding clinicaltrial results and high prices.

Separately, The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that the Food and Drug Administration could announce soon1 that it would examine its drug-advertising policies, which could lead to tougher regulations.

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