Frontline, ProMeris not going OTC, manufacturers say

Veterinary market research survey gives confusing message

Published: November 08, 2010
By Edie Lau

An earlier version of this article described ProMeris as a prescription flea and tick killer. ProMeris does not require a prescription. We apologize for the error.

Information in a market research survey commissioned by Merial that suggests Frontline and ProMeris will be sold over-the-counter (OTC) through retail stores is hypothetical, a company official said.

The parasiticides will continue to be sold through the offices of veterinarians.

“We are still absolutely committed to the vet channel. Nothing has changed,” said Don Schwartz, executive director of business services and business development for Merial, maker of Frontline, the world's bestselling spot-on flea prevention product.

Likewise, Pfizer spokesman Rick Goulart said the company has no plans to change the way it markets the flea and tick killer ProMeris. “Absolutely not,” Goulart said. “Pfizer is very much in support of veterinarians, and that is how we bring product to market – through veterinarians.

“The reason is obvious, but it bears repeating,” he added. “These medicines require veterinary care and attention.”

The suggestion that the companies’ sales policies were changing came to veterinarians through a survey sent out by an online market research firm. Dr. John Carey, a practitioner in Wisconsin, took the survey last week. He reported that the survey, after asking him what kinds of flea, tick and heartworm products he uses, purported to announce coming changes.

It showed an image of a package resembling Frontline, but the name of the product was “Off!” Written in smaller print on the picture of the box was: “From the makers of Frontline,” Carey recalled.

The survey stated that “Off!” would be sold directly to consumers at retail stores including Walmart and Target, he said. From the description, it appeared that Off! was similar to Frontline in containing the active ingredient fipronil.

The survey went on to say that Frontline Plus (which contains S-methoprene to kill flea eggs and larvae in addition to fipronil to kill adults) would continue to be sold only through veterinarians, Carey recounted.

In the case of ProMeris, the survey showed what appeared to be a press release by Pfizer stating that the drug is now sold over the counter and thanking veterinarians for their support over the years, Carey said.

The scenarios were not clearly couched as hypothetical, Carey said: “It was presented as a done deal.”

After presenting the “plans” for Frontline and ProMeris, Carey said, the survey asked whether he would still buy products from the companies and whether the marketing changes would affect his recommendations.

The information was so compelling that after he completed the survey, Carey posted a summary on a message board of the Veterinary Information Network, a professional online community.

Merial’s Schwartz confirmed that his company commissioned the survey. “We’ve done, as others do, routine market research in the OTC channel and about the OTC channel, and we’ve done so for at least the past seven years,” he said.

He said the aim of the survey, which is ongoing, is to evaluate veterinarians’ responses to various hypothetical scenarios. He said the survey should have made it clear that the scenarios were not real. Schwartz said a generic form of fipronil called “Off!” does not exist. “I can assure you there is no such product,” he said.

Joseph Ridgway, a partner at Bruno and Ridgway Research, which owns, said the survey is designed to collect opinions from 600 veterinarians and that invitations to participate probably were sent to several thousand.

Ridgway declined a request from the VIN News Service to see the survey, noting that his company signs confidentiality agreements with all its clients. Generally speaking, he said, “When manufacturers investigate possible scenarios for their products, they always use hypothetical situations. This is done to ensure that they are making the best business decision.”

Drug manufacturer marketing is a sensitive issue in veterinary circles. Historically, the animal health pharmaceutical giants have maintained policies of selling their products exclusively through veterinarians. However, Internet pharmacies, big-box retailers and feed stores have taken a share of sales by obtaining pet-health products, especially flea and tick treatments, through a thriving “gray market” that keeps its suppliers secret.

Some of those suppliers are known to be veterinarians or veterinary staff selling excess inventory to brokers as a way of making extra money. Many veterinarians who decry the practice known as diversion suspect manufacturers are clandestinely supplying retail stores and Internet pharmacies as well. Manufacturers vigorously deny the charge.

Only one major pharmaceutical company has an official policy of selling veterinary drugs directly to retail outlets: Bayer ended its veterinarian-exclusive sales policy in March. Many observers have expected Bayer's competitors to follow suit.

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