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Competition in sleeping pill market likely to spur ad war

NEW YORK - The maker of Ambien has begun a new ad campaign it hopes will reverse a sales slide triggered by reports that some patients couldn't recall driving or eating while sleepwalking when using the prescription sleep aid.

The campaign Sanofi-Aventis SA launched Wednesday is likely the first salvo in what analysts predict will be a fierce advertising war in the market which has seen sales drop in the aftermath of the negative news. Sanofi's Ambien is expected to have a new competitor by this summer when Pfizer Inc. and partner Neurocrine Sciences Inc. are slated to debut a new pill.

Analysts expect the ads to flood the media just as the commercials for erectile dysfunction treatments like Viagra, when that drug added new competition.

''You are not going to be able to watch a television show without seeing a commercial for a sleeping pill,'' said Jason Napodano, an analyst at Zacks Independent Research.

Pfizer's pill - known generically as indiplon - will compete head-on with Ambien and Lunesta, a prescription drug that Sepracor Inc. began marketing 11 months ago as a way for the sleep-deprived to get a good night's rest.

Sleeping pill prescriptions grew 55 percent to 45.5 million from 2001 to 2005, according to IMS Health, a pharmaceutical market research firm.

Six-month old Ambien CR, the successor drug to the headline-grabbing medicine, had been steadily gaining market share since last October. Unlike its predecessor, Ambien CR is approved to help maintain sleep and for long-term use. But after publicity about the negative side effects for some Ambien users surfaced earlier this month, sales of it and other sleep aids have slowed.

Verispan, which tracks prescription data, reported that in the two weeks ended March 17, total sleeping pill prescriptions fell 9 percent to 842,561 while new prescription declined 8 percent to 465,233. New Ambien prescriptions fell 12 percent to 211,902, while Lunesta's dropped 4 percent to 63,589 and Ambien CR's shed 13 percent to 61,366.