Once again the switch of prescription medicines to over-the-counter status has sparked a legal battle among manufacturers, leaving supermarkets and their pharmacists caught in the middle and consumers asking questions about the efficacy of such drugs.
The battle has shifted from analgesics and the Aleve introduction last year to the antacid category with the rollouts this summer of Pepcid AC and Tagamet HB, the new over-the-counter remedies for the relief of heartburn.
Soon after the introduction of Tagamet HB last month, SmithKline Beecham, Pittsburgh, the manufacturer of the drug, filed a false advertising suit in District Court for the Southern District of New York against Johnson & Johnson, New Brunswick, N.J., and Merck & Co., White House Station, N.J., the joint manufacturers of Pepcid AC.
"It is just one more example of corporate in-fighting," said Dana Greenhoe, pharmacy director at Kash n' Karry Food Stores, Tampa, Fla.
"Our pharmacists are taking a neutral stand on these H2 antagonists," he added. "I haven't really noticed that the pharmacists prefer one over the other."
Unlike antacids, which neutralize stomach acids, H2 antagonists inhibit gastric acid secretion.
Allen Karpe, director of pharmacy and health and beauty care at Valu Food, Baltimore, called SmithKline's lawsuit a case of simply "bad-mouthing your opponent."
He predicted SmithKline Beecham would gain more market share in the emerging H2 antagonist segment. "If you make accusations and it gets into the media, it will dampen the sales of Pepcid."
Holly Baker, pharmacist at Harvest Foods, Little Rock, Ark., has been getting inquiries from customers about the H2 anatagonists. "People are mostly concerned about the potential side effects of Tagamet,"she said.
Barrett Moravec, director of pharmacy at Abco Foods, Phoenix, is concerned about minimizing customer confusion. "We have put up shelf-talkers at all our stores with pharmacies. They are simply signs that direct customers to the pharmacist if they have any questions on either Tagamet or Pepcid. There is going to be more and more of a need for this as more prescriptions such as these come over-the-counter."
Greenhoe of Kash n' Karry said that consumers often come in with a coupon or a recommendation from a friend or neighbor for such new products. "They just pick up the product, without coming to the pharmacist," he added.
"We are getting a lot more inquiries about Tagamet," said Sue Bishop, pharmacist at Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle's Rochester, Pa., unit. "That is the name consumers know."
Generally, consumers are enthusiastically endorsing the H2 antagonist segment at supermarkets, said retailers.
"Pepcid has been in the stores for a number of weeks," said Moravec, "and its sales have been steadily climbing, week by week."
He added that Tagamet's introduction, which was backed by major promotions, has not affected Pepcid sales.
"Pepcid did not lose sales when Tagamet hit the market," he said.
"For the first two weeks that we had Tagamet," said Grant MacLean, HBC buyer at Rosauers Supermarkets, Spokane, Wash., "it started a lot stronger than Pepcid. The early numbers indicate that Tagamet was a significantly stronger introduction."
"I know that Tagamet was a much, much stronger newcomer to the over-the-counter market for us," said Karpe. "It is greatly outselling Pepcid. I ran hot specials on both. Tagamet flew out of the store. Pepcid didn't."
But there will be more sieges to come in the battle to boost sales and product image.
SmithKline Beecham has requested preliminary injunctive relief from the court plus damages and corrective advertising based on what it says are blatantly false claims made in commercials for Johnson & Johnson/Merck's Pepcid AC.
Specifically, SmithKline Beecham has charged that the Pepcid commercials make false claims about the duration of acid control and the symptomatic relief of heartburn, among other things. Johnson & Johnson/Merck, for its part, issued a statement denying the charges. "We have solid support for our Pepcid AC claims and are confident that they will be substantiated in court," a company statement said.