The news is good--regular aspirin use has been found to reduce the chance of heart attacks in men over 50. But aspirin makers must take two and call in the morning.
For now, the Food and Drug Administration has told the manufacturers of such aspirin products as Bayer, Bufferin, Anacin and Excedrin not to advertise the findings of the new study published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Aspirin manufacturers agreed during a meeting last Friday with FDA officials to continue a voluntary ban on promoting the results. That moratorium was instituted in early 1988 when preliminary findings of the study were released amid heavy publicity.
"It's very difficult to say at this point what it will mean" to aspirin manufacturers, said Terry Kelly, spokesman for Sterling Drug Co., the Eastman Kodak subsidiary that makes Bayer aspirin.
"More important is that it is encouraging news for some patients," he said. "As for market-wise, I wouldn't even speculate as to the potential there."
The final report on the massive study stated that taking aspirin every other day can reduce the risk of first heart attacks by nearly half for men over 50. However, the study also found that regular use of aspirin might increase the risk of stroke.
An FDA spokeswoman said the agency will decide by late fall whether manufacturers can tout aspirin use in preventing first heart attacks in promotions to physicians.
"Even though aspirin is the wonder drug that works wonders, we're not changing our investment readings as a result of this study," said Craig P. Baskin, a drug industry analyst with the Duff & Phelps investment firm.
Aspirin accounts for so little of the profits of such publicly traded companies as Bristol-Myers and American Home Products that even if aspirin sales doubled, the drug would still account for only a small percentage of profits, he said.
After watching non-aspirin products slice a growing share of the $2-billion painkiller market, manufacturers saw aspirin bounce back in the mid-1980s when studies first began to suggest that the drug might help prevent heart attacks, said David Saks, New York-based health-care analyst for Wedbush Noble Securities of Los Angeles.
Aspirin and acetaminophen products--Tylenol, for example--each held about 40% of the market in 1987, according to Hambrect & Quist, a San Francisco-based brokerage firm. Ibuprofen products--including Advil and Nuprin--made up 20% of the market.
An average of 800 million aspirin tablets are consumed each day, according to the Aspirin Foundation of America, a Washington-based trade group. "Can you imagine how many headaches that takes care of?" a spokeswoman quipped.
While aspirin makers are constrained from mass marketing the new study's findings, "I think clever advertising executives will find ways to sneak in and get the message across," analyst Saks said.
Consulting Doctor Stressed
Bristol-Myers, the New York-based manufacturer of Bufferin and Excedrin, will "absolutely not" advertise the findings of the new study, spokeswoman Marie-Claude Stockl said. One of the company's Bufferin ads does promote aspirin use in preventing second heart attacks, which is allowed by the FDA.
"We do emphasize that people should go see their doctors if they use aspirin to prevent a second heart attack," Stockl said.
Bayer also has advertised the benefits of aspirin in helping prevent second heart attacks but currently has no such ads running, Kelly said. Those ads too stressed the need to consult a physician because "self-diagnosis and treatment of heart problems is a serious matter," he said.
A spokeswoman for American Home Products Whitehall Laboratories, which makes Anacin, declined to comment on the company's advertising plans.