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Safety Issue May Change Pill Culture

Drug Firms' Growth Expected to Slow

By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 22, 2004; Page E01

Safety questions about popular pain-killing medications may give people pause over the nation's pill-popping culture, analysts say, and that would give the beleaguered drug industry something else to worry about.

The tendency to take prescription pills for everyday aches and pains, shyness, allergies, impotence, and other "lifestyle" concerns have helped prop up pharmaceutical company revenue. Now analysts say safety concerns may prompt a consumer backlash.

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"We are entering a period of caution and concern, and a lot of people will take a second look at the excessive use of so-called lifestyle medicines," said Steven Findlay, a health care analyst at Consumers Union in Washington.

In September, Merck & Co. pulled its painkiller Vioxx off the market after studies found it increased the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Last week, Pfizer Inc. said high doses of its painkiller Celebrex more than doubled the risk of heart attacks. And this week, federal health officials said naproxen, sold over the counter as Aleve, might increase the risk of heart attack or stroke.

Some also worry that antidepressants pose an increased risk of suicide among children and teenagers .

"When the average consumer sees the headlines and the news blitz on one drug after another, you would think that the average person is going to become more and more concerned," said Herman Saftlas, a pharmaceutical analyst for Standard & Poor's.

Members of Congress have expressed concern over the safety problems, and pressure is mounting on the Food and Drug Administration to strengthen its safety examination of drugs. Analysts predicted that will lead to lengthier, more expensive testing of new drugs.

Add to that the pharmaceutical companies' other problems -- including a dwindling pipeline of new drugs in development and a number of older drugs losing patent protection -- and the industry's growth prospects appear dim, analysts said.

"I think it's a tough outlook for them going forward," said David Moskowitz, managing director of health care research at Friedman, Billings, Ramsey Group Inc.

Gone are the days of 13 and 14 percent annual revenue growth that drug companies enjoyed in the 1990s. Revenue growth has fallen to 9 or 10 percent in recent years and is likely to fall further, to 7 or 8 percent annually, according to Saftlas of Standard & Poor's.

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