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Naming Drugs Can Be Tricky Business

May 25, 1998

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) _ If parents agonize over a new baby’s name, imagine the dilemma for a pharmaceutical company with a new drug.

An upbeat, memorable name _ say, Viagra or Prozac _ can help boost sales, particularly in an era where consumers are being bombarded with drug ads goading them to demand prescriptions for specific brands from their doctor.

But finding a name that’s unique and memorable isn’t easy. Like new parents seeking inspiration from baby name books, many companies now use wordsmiths for a task that can cost upwards of $250,000 and take years.

``It’s always getting harder,″ said John McKeegan, spokesman for New Brunswick-based Johnson & Johnson.

While trying to find a name that will ring up sales, drugmakers also must navigate around the thousands of brands already in the market to avoid trademark infringement or confusion. And that’s not the only problem.

``You really have to do your homework to make sure the name you choose won’t be offensive in another language″ said Andy McCormick, spokesman at New York-based Pfizer Inc., maker of the blockbuster impotency pill Viagra, a name suggesting vigor and virility.

The complexity of drug naming has spawned a growing industry of consultants.

Naming experts note a shift over the last few years away from Latin and technical-sounding names reflecting the drug’s chemical structure to ``fanciful,″ made-up ones, which are snappier and easier to trademark.

``It’s a shift from speaking the doctor’s language″ to the patient’s language, said Amy Mills, director of naming at identity consultants Addison Whitney Inc. in Charlotte, N.C.

Drugmakers also want to ensure that the names don’t sound or look similar to another brand. That can confuse pharmacists and lead to dangerous errors.

So names like Diflucan, a yeast infection drug sounding like its generic name of fluconazole, are becoming passe. In vogue are names like Claritin, Zyban and Prevacid _ drugs to ``clear up″ allergy symptoms, ``ban″ depression and prevent stomach acid, respectively.

``One of the trends we’re seen is this move to real names, or close to real names,″ said Jonathan Bell, naming director at naming consultants Interbrand in New York. ``You’ve got Alleve, Accolate and Augmentin.″

Likewise Whitehouse Station-based Merck & Co.’s three-month-old asthma drug Singulair.

``We originally chose the name because it is a once-a-day drug,″ said Merck spokeswoman Danielle Halstrom.

Then there’s the flu vaccine Prohibit, and Effexor, an anti-depressant.

``It practically says effective in the name,″ said Melissa Kalish, managing partner at Interbrand.

Finding a catchy name is just one hurdle.

With most drugs sold worldwide, manufacturers must ensure the name isn’t already trademarked anywhere. That’s often the toughest task, given the 1,600-plus active drug brand names and nearly 18,000 active generic names in this country alone.

Brand names also can’t promise more than they deliver. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration rejects any name suggesting a use for which the drug isn’t approved or a claim that wasn’t proven, said Dan Boring, FDA’s head of drug naming evaluation.

He cites a classic example: Pharmacia & Upjohn wanted to name its hair-restoration drug Regain, but had to settle for Rogaine.

But one consumer watchdog, Public Citizen’s Health Research Group co-founder Dr. Sidney Wolfe, is concerned about misleading names _ and ads. He notes spending on direct-to-consumer advertising has jumped from about $50 million in 1991 to a projected $1.5 billion this year.

``What the companies have tried to do is come up with a smooth-sounding name, overstate the benefits and understate the risks,″ Wolfe said. ``The FDA made a serious mistake in allowing television ads.″