Drug Industry Launches Ad Campaign Aimed at Lawmakers

The pharmaceutical industry, under fire this election season for rising drug prices, is ramping up a new advertising campaign designed to improve its reputation with lawmakers as it lobbies against any effort to rein in prescription costs.

The sector’s largest trade group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, says it intends to spend several million dollars this year, and 10% more than in 2015, on digital, radio and print ads that emphasize the industry’s role in developing new drugs and advancing medical science.

Many of the ads are running on social-media sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter,because PhRMA wants to target federal and state lawmakers, policy analysts and other political “influencers,” said Robert Zirkelbach, senior vice president of communications at PhRMA, which represents nearly three dozen of the largest drugmakers, includingPfizer Inc. and Amgen Inc.

Websites like Facebook promise to deliver ads to specific audiences based on characteristics including their location, occupation and keyword search history.

The campaign is primarily directed at policy makers in Washington, but ads will also run in some select states that have yet to be determined, Mr. Zirkelbach said.

Many of the ads feature patients who have been helped by new medicines, and company scientists working on drug development. Others highlight the financial assistance companies provide to the poor and uninsured, through copay assistance and free-drug programs.

The ads, which don’t mention drug prices or potential legislative changes, are aimed at improving the industry’s image amid calls to have the government play a greater role in controlling drug prices.

PhRMA wants to “make sure the patient story is front-and-center in any discussion of the biopharmaceutical industry and drug costs,” Mr. Zirkelbach said.

The campaign comes amid what some congressional aides call a significant uptick in PhRMA’s lobbying activity. The group recently caught wind that Sen. Al Franken (D., Minn.) was drafting a letter urging President Barack Obama to combat rising drug prices, a congressional aide said. PhRMA “proactively mounted a campaign to discourage Democrats from signing it,” the aide said. The letter was sent on Feb. 2, and was cosigned by a total of eight Senators, including seven Democrats and one independent.

Mr. Zirkelbach declined to comment on any increase in PhRMA’s lobbying activity regarding drug pricing, or on whether the group tried to dissuade Democrats from signing Sen. Franken’s letter. In 2015, PhRMA spent $18.45 million lobbying federal officials, up 11% from 2014, and the ninth-largest sum of any organization, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Advocates for bringing down drug prices have been emboldened by continued scrutiny of rising drug costs, including criticism by presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D., Vt.), and Donald Trump.

“There’s never been a time when this issue was as red hot as it is right now,” said Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a nonprofit group that operates clinics and pharmacies for people with AIDS. “We’ve got major political candidates and news stories talking everyday about how bad this industry is.”

The group is sponsoring a voter referendum in California that would require the state to purchase drugs at prices no higher than what is paid by the Department of Veterans Affairs, which generally receives significantly greater discounts than other government agencies. PhRMA has amassed more than $38 million to fight the referendum, according to California campaign finance records.

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation is pushing to get a similar initiative on the ballot this November in Ohio, a presidential battleground state that would put an even greater spotlight on drug prices, Mr. Weinstein said.

As part of the lawmaker-focused ad campaign, PhRMA in late January began running an online video ad on sites including CNN.com, featuring a Merck & Co. researcher dressed in a white lab coat and safety glasses, and two patients. They jointly narrate the video, saying that “thanks to new treatments, we’re fighting back” against diseases including cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. “Every day brings us closer to a cure,” the Merck researcher says. Merck declined to comment.

The group is also running radio spots on two stations in Washington, D.C., including one ad that associates itself with the Obama administration’s plan to fund a “moonshot” research program to “cure” cancer. “America’s biopharmaceutical companies support this goal and have been at the task for decades,” a narrator says in the radio spot. PhRMA is also running banner ads on health-care and politics-focused websites and has sponsored email newsletters published by political news websites Politico, Morning Consult and Real Clear Politics.

By showing the benefits that drugmakers provide to patients, the ads also illustrate what is under threat from laws aimed at curbing the drug industry’s profits, Mr. Zirkelbach said.

“These advances you are seeing come out of the biopharmaceutical industry are at risk,” he said.

Celgene Corp. Chief Executive Robert Hugin, a PhRMA board member, recently said the industry was limiting its response to pricing criticisms to a relatively small group around the country, including state and federal lawmakers, and patient advocacy groups.

“We’ve identified 7,000 Americans who matter,” Mr. Hugin said during a lunch with reporters in January at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco. “We’re focusing on [people] in policy positions, talking to patient groups, to fight structural issues.”

The industry is also focusing its discussions with doctors, think tanks and other stakeholders, a Celgene spokesman said.

At the January lunch, Mr. Hugin said many in the public took a dim view of drugmakers because of high prescription copays. The industry can’t change the minds of more than 300 million Americans, he said, so was instead focusing on policy makers.

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