How many heart attacks will it take…

Pfizer just doesn’t get it. A mere 16 months after the company stopped advertising Celebrex over serious concerns about its heart risks, Pfizer is back at it with a major consumer campaign aimed at reviving sales of the drug, which plunged last year during the ad moratorium.Celebrex

Consumer groups, physicians and many other industry specialists have quickly voiced their displeasure. They claim that Celebrex is so dangerous that Pfizer should stop selling it and clearly not encourage any patients to use it. Dr. Sidney Wolfe, the director of health research for the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen was quoted in Saturday’s New York times article as saying, "There’s no objective evidence of any unique benefit with this drug, and there is objective evidence of a unique risk." Just Google Celebrex and you’ll find handfuls of similar statements from others within the profession, including one from the former FDA commissioner who said in 2004 that he has "great concerns about this product."

Why would Pfizer go out on a limb and take such a risk with Celebrex? It’s very easy to see — Celebrex accounted for $3.3 billion in sales in 2004. Just one year later, during its inconvenient advertising moratorium, sales plunged to less than $1.7 billion. With few other blockbuster drugs in the pipeline and yet another quarterly earnings season always just around the quarter, companies like Pfizer have few alternatives to make Wall Street happy.

Still, this line of thinking truly makes little sense. After watching Merck’s continuing debacle with Vioxx from the sidelines, one would hope that Pfizer and the overall industry would easily take the hint. Putting aside the cost of all the law suits that will undoubtedly be filed if indeed Celebrex is linked to heart problems in the future, why doesn’t Pfizer care about its most important asset — the company’s reputation?

What is the price of a corporate reputation? Is $3 billion or $10 billion or $20 billion in new sales worth the trade off? I think not. This is really quite elementary and Pfizer should be following the Corporate Public Relations 101 Hand book that most corporate insiders have become wise to over the last decade. Three simple rules follow as such:

1) Truly care about your customer: If this is true, then you wouldn’t create and then offer services or products that run contrary to this rule.

2) Learn from other industry PR blunders: The pharmaceutical industry has a two-ton weight on its shoulders believing that no one understands its true motives (the welfare of its consumers, of course). Yet, actions speak louder then words. These actions scream profit, profit and more profit!

3) Be honest with your customers: Transparency is the name of the game. Pfizer has put a black-box warning on Celebrex detailing its risks (after Federal Regulators forced it to), but I’ve yet to witness any honest and open conversations with consumers about what the real story is and whether they should be concerned.

I find it interesting that the pharmaceutical industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year trying to convince its customers that its members truly mean well and are in business to develop drugs that prevent, treat and cure countless diseases. Yet when it comes down to making a buck…sometimes the customers welfare is actually thrown aside and damaged much greater than if the drugs never existed. Celebrex was created to relieve pain. Seems very ironic to me that its impact may actually cause more pain to the company that stands behind it.

Hat tip to Ed Moed for his thoughts.

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