WILL MEDICATION'S PAIN BECOME FOOD'S GAIN IN 2005?

Consumers are victims once again. Millions of people who've come to rely on two popular painkillers -- Vioxx and Celebrex -- have been jolted by recent research exposing possible dangers with those medications.The double-whammy of bad news for consumers -- and for the drug industry -- has certain impact for supermarket pharmacies. What about impact on the food side of supermarkets? That hasn't been

Consumers are victims once again. Millions of people who've come to rely on two popular painkillers -- Vioxx and Celebrex -- have been jolted by recent research exposing possible dangers with those medications.

The double-whammy of bad news for consumers -- and for the drug industry -- has certain impact for supermarket pharmacies. What about impact on the food side of supermarkets? That hasn't been explored in the general media, probably because it isn't as obvious or immediate. Nonetheless, it's a subject worth some analysis.

First, however, let's review the background of the drug news. Merck & Co. recalled Vioxx late last year after a study linked the arthritis drug with higher incidences of heart attacks and strokes. Pfizer, meanwhile, did not pull Celebrex after a study late last year linked higher doses with increased heart attack risk. The company, however, has stopped advertising the drug to consumers and has been hit by a class-action lawsuit as new prescriptions for Celebrex plummet. Many consumers are now either worried about potential negative side effects from these drugs or are scurrying to find replacements. These kinds of warnings have hit other drugs in the past.

So how does all of this involve food? The cumulative impact of all the drug news may be that consumers decide to take more ownership of their health through nutrition, among other things. That's not to say the right foods will banish arthritis pain. But consumers are becoming aware that a lifetime of good nutrition can help prevent obesity, and possibly prevent or forestall other health problems later in life.

A consumer research study released late last year by Food Marketing Institute and Prevention Magazine supports the notion that consumers are increasingly turning to food over medicine to solve health problems. An interesting thing about that study is the research was conducted early in 2004, long before the media blitz over painkillers focused attention on these drugs.

The FMI/Prevention national consumer survey is called "Shopping for Health 2004: Making Sense of Nutrition News & Health Claims." Among the key results, 56% of consumer respondents strongly agreed eating healthfully is a better way to manage illness than taking medications. Almost 60% strongly agreed they are trying hard to eat healthfully so they can avoid health problems later in life.

However, nutrition, like drugs, is the subject of conflicting media information that frustrates consumers. Some 60% of shoppers polled said there is too much confusing information in news stories about nutrition.

Most alarming for supermarkets, only 32% of shoppers believe supermarkets are the type of store that best meets the health needs of consumers, according to the study. Twenty-four percent of respondents said discounters including Wal-Mart, Kmart and Target do the best job.

Supermarkets have opportunities to improve perceptions. Simply enhancing assortments of healthy products will help. The study found that 46% of shoppers want their store to offer more healthful prepared foods. Education is another route. Thirty-six percent of shoppers want their store to provide more details on weight-loss methods, for example. The new year will surely bring new confusing reports about both drugs and foods. Supermarkets can carve out a health niche for themselves at a time when the topic has the attention of consumers.