T

wo drug makers are ignoring a demand from Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin to yank a television ad that he believes is a “shameful attempt” to exploit the opioid crisis.

The dispute arose last week when Shumlin released an open letter to Daiichi Sankyo and AstraZeneca after they ran an ad during the Super Bowl. The ad promoted awareness of opioid-induced constipation, a condition that can occur when someone is taking opioid painkillers.

As far as Shumlin is concerned, the ad is “poorly timed,” given the “irrational exuberance” with which opioids are sometimes prescribed. “Now is the time to change that, not attempt to further normalize long-term opiate use by advertising a drug to help people take even more opiates during the most watched sporting event of the year,” he wrote the companies.

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He also noted that a one-minute Super Bowl ad cost a reported $10 million — or more precisely, $5 million for each 30-second spot — and wants the drug makers to, instead, divert some of their promotional dollars toward prevention and treatment programs.

The ad, by the way, did not mention a particular medicine. But AstraZeneca and Daiichi Sankyo market Movantik, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in September 2014 to treat opioid-induced constipation. The ad, however, directs viewers to a web site about the condition, where consumers can click on a button that directs them to the Movantik web site.

So what will the drug makers do?

A Daiichi Sankyo spokeswoman sent us a statement saying the drug maker acknowledges that opioid abuse is a “very serious public health” issue in the United States, but did not mention the possibility of pulling the ad. Instead, she wrote us that the company — along with AstraZeneca and five advocacy groups that also sponsored the ad — is “committed to raising awareness” about the condition.

In a letter to Shumlin, AstraZeneca wrote that “we believe our message encourages a clinically important conversation about OIC between patients and their doctors, which may also facilitate a broader discussion about safe and appropriate opioid use. While these discussions are separate and distinct, both are important for patients and their families.”

Their responses, however, did not mention pulling the ads or using advertising funds as Shumlin suggested.

A spokesman for the governor wrote us that “the governor stands by his letter. At a time when the entire country is battling an opiate and heroin epidemic, the last thing we need is for drug companies to take advantage of that crisis to boost their bottom line.”

Shumlin was not the only public official to take offense to the ad. As STAT previously reported, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough tweeted this to the companies after seeing the ad:“Next year, how about fewer ads that fuel opioid addiction and more on access to treatment?”

One pharmaceutical marketer, however, believes that Shumlin is misguided, because the TV ad does not promote opioid use, but does attempt to address a legitimate condition.

“He’s way off base,” Richard Meyer, an industry consultant who writes The World of DTC Marketing blog, told us. “If he is so concerned about addiction, he needs to tighten the prescribing parameters and make it tougher for patients to become addicted.”

But another marketing expert disagreed.

“I suppose he, like many other state governors, is faced with increasing Medicaid costs and other expenditures related to opioid addiction,” said John Mack, who publishes Pharma Marketing News. “So, I don’t think he is the misguided one.”

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