Online drug ads under review in U.S.

Drug makers and internet companies attending a U.S. Food and Drug Administration hearing on online drug advertising are hoping the regulator will ease restrictions on promoting drugs on the web while consumer advocates want it to do the opposite.

Drug makers and internet companies attending a U.S. Food and Drug Administration hearing on online drug advertising are hoping the regulator will ease restrictions on promoting drugs on the web while consumer advocates want it to do the opposite.

The FDA held hearings on Thursday and Friday to discuss whether the agency needs to regulate how drugs and medical devices are promoted online.

The agency has agreed to consider developing rules for online ads similar to those that exist for traditional media, which require detailed lists of side-effects when ads mention benefits of a drug.

"We need to get some adjustment to the way the medium is used because it's very different from print and broadcast," Yahoo vice-president David Zinman told The Associated Press Thursday. "That's the main challenge."

Consumer advocates want the FDA to increase enforcement, with the industry picking up the tab.

In April, the FDA sent warning letters to 14 companies, including Eli Lilly and Co. and Merck & Co. Inc., about their drug marketing online, saying that ads for certain products were misleading and did not contain any risk information.

New ad designs tested

Since then, pharmaceutical companies have changed the design of their internet ads to no longer include the brand name of the drug.

A link that reads "Cholesterol levels" on Yahoo, for example, connects to the site for Lipitor, Pfizer's best-selling cholesterol drug.

Zinman said such ads are less transparent for consumers because the brand name isn't displayed.

Yahoo is testing a new type of ad that would contain an extra link to detailed drug information, including risks.

Google is trying a similar design listing a summary of drugs risks with a link to full prescribing information.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association, a drug industry lobby group, suggested placing an FDA logo within ads that would link to the full risk information for a drug.

The shorter text would fit the 140-character limit on social media sites like Twitter.

One consumer advocate said there is a general lack of consistency in the quality of information on frequently used third-party websites, such as Wikipedia.

"Because the risk of providing inaccurate information on medical products is so high, the FDA needs to establish ongoing relationships with … websites consumers are relying on," Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Research Center for Women and Families, said in her remarks at the hearing.

The agency is accepting comments through February 2010.

With files from The Associated Press