Tuesday, October 12, 2004

The unexpected popularity of Prilosec OTC, the nation’s biggest-selling over-the-counter heartburn treatment, has created a nationwide shortage of the purple pill.

Retailers began seeing sales of the drug skyrocket in the spring and the supply diminish in the summer. Prilosec OTC is one of the only heartburn treatments available over the counter. At about $1 per pill, it is cheaper than its prescription counterparts. Prescription Prilosec costs about $2 to $3 per pill.

“The real problem has been that America’s stomach is in much worse shape than we could have ever anticipated,” said Kurt Weingand, spokesman for Procter and Gamble, the drug’s manufacturer.

P&G expects that the shortage will last through the end of the year. However, the company has increased production and consumers should see an increased supply starting this month, Mr. Weingand said.

The Cincinnati consumer-products manufacturer blamed the shortage on management’s underestimating the drug’s immense success when it introduced the once-a-day remedy in September 2003.

When P&G introduced Prilosec OTC — an over-the-counter version of the prescription — it estimated that the drug’s first-year sales would be between $200 million and $400 million.

The company has exceeded $400 million in sales, Chief Executive Officer A.G. Lafley told reporters yesterday in a briefing before P&G’s shareholders meeting, although he would not give specifics.

Some local stores can’t keep up with the drug’s demand, said Rite Aid spokeswoman Jody Cook.

Because of the drug’s low supply, P&G evenly allocates its stock to retailers nationwide so that one area of the country will not receive more than another.

“I think there are some stores that probably have sold out, but we’ll keep trying to replenish them with whatever we can get from P&G,” Ms. Cook said.

Giant Food stores in the Baltimore-Washington area have been running out of Prilosec OTC since April, said spokesman Barry Scher.

“As soon as we get some, it’s gone quickly,” Mr. Scher said.

Greg TenEyck, spokesman for Safeway’s Eastern division, called its stores’ supply “spotty” and said some stores have posted signs alerting customers when they are sold out.

The National Heartburn Alliance estimates that more than 50 million Americans experience frequent heartburn, which is caused by tiny pumps in the stomach that produce acid to break down food. When the pumps do not perform properly, the acid can back up into the esophagus, creating a burning sensation.

P&G markets Prilosec OTC under an agreement with AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals LP, which makes the prescription version of Prilosec.

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