Calm Down And Take Two Aspirin

Name-calling by drugmakers has networks playing censor

When it comes to attack ads, Presidential campaigners have nothing on drugmakers. In September, Tylenol maker Johnson & Johnson began a television campaign warning that Advil use can interfere with blood-pressure medication. Advil's manufacturer, American Home Products Corp., hit back in February with a spot warning that heavy drinkers risk liver damage from Tylenol.

The networks have had to act as intermediaries in the fight: They yanked the anti-Advil ad early this year, and then began pulling the anti-Tylenol ad on Mar. 8. Capital Cities/ABC Inc. went so far as to ban all competitive safety claims in ads for health products. A spokeswoman for the company says such ads "can be misinterpreted by the public as overplaying the health concerns involved." NBC is also reviewing its policy on comparative safety ads.

The companies are unapologetic. A spokeswoman for American Home's Whitehall-Robins division insists that Tylenol's alcohol-interaction problems "are an important health issue." J&J says that "it's clear that for pain-relief, doctors recommend Tylenol over the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs." Doctors charge that the ads deliver far more heat than light. "They are overblown," says Dr. Fred D. Sheftell, director of the New England Center for Headache in Stamford, Conn., and head of the American Council for Headache Education.

LONG WAY TO GO. The truth: Tylenol, Advil, and many other painkillers generally won't hurt users in good health who take the medicines infrequently. Even so, heavy use of either Advil or Tylenol by virtually anyone is risky. In doses of over 40 pills a day, the acetaminophen in Tylenol has been linked to liver problems. And Advil's ibuprofen is in a class of drugs that has been linked to elevated blood pressure and gastric problems. Dr. Sandy A. Furey, a Whitehall-Robins assistant vice-president, insists no data shows gastrointestinal or blood pressure problems with Advil. A J&J spokesman agrees that high doses of alcohol and Tylenol can cause liver problems.

In newspaper ads, J&J warns that overuse of any painkiller and alcohol will cause trouble. Advil has yet to respond in kind. Like the 1996 campaign, this battle has a long way to go.