All Prozac, All The Time

With sales of its antidepressant drug Prozac slipping, drug giant Eli Lilly is turning to 30-minute infomercials to peddle the product that accounted for one third of the company's more than $9 billion in sales last year.

"This is a phenomenal opportunity to reach people who otherwise wouldn't be reached," says Dr. Freda Lewis-Hall of Eli Lilly & Co. "This reaches people where they sit -- in front of the television."

The infomercials will air in the middle of the night and on weekends when surveys indicate more depressed people are likely to be watching, reports CBS News Correspondent Jerry Bowen.

"One out of eight Americans will suffer from clinical depression at some point in their lives," the infomercial's narrator says.

Prozac remains a prescription drug, but critics contend the company is exploiting the most vulnerable people.

"This question certainly comes up," Lewis-Hall says. "Is this a way to reach vulnerable people -- people who are ill or people who are exposed? We think the answer to that simply is: No."

But bioethicist Dr. Alex Capron believes the problem of buyers wanting the product, versus truly ill patients, could arise.

"It leads probably to some injudicious use - the doctor giving in to the patient, and it really tries to substitute the drug company for the physician," Capron says.

It may not be just lost sales that drove Eli Lilly to use infomercials. It may also be the fast approaching date -- as early as 2001 -- when its Prozac patent expires. That means cheaper generic versions could flood the market. For drug giant Eli Lilly, that really will be depressing.

However, Lewis-Hall told CBS 'This Morning' that the infomercial is not a response to current sales.

"This has been in the making for a while, about a year or so. It is a part of our long-term commitment to outreach and education around depression. Just kind of a next step in the process," she said.

The infomercial, which begins airing Monday, is aimed mostly at women, with all but two patients featured being female. It includes shaky camera shots of people who are presumably depressed and testimonials from people who have benefited from Prozac.

After viewing a few testimonials that are included in the infomerical, Capron said, "I think we have to remember...this is an advertisement for Lilly for Prozac. It is not an educational program. And the way it is presented is the way good advertising is presented, to grab your emotions and to leave you with a message that you want this drug."

Millions of Americans pay about $60 a month for Prozac, which treats depression, bulimia, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other ills. Its side effects include sexual dysfunction and sleeplessness.
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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