Stent Wars Going Strong

Like most Americans, I'd rather whip out the Drano and pipe snake a couple of times a year than keep the old tubes clear via the boring -- but more effective -- method of not stuffing them with junk in the first place. New medical studies discussed in The New York Times suggest that we operate the same way when it comes to keeping our arteries running smoothly.

The argument is this. Stents, like those made by leading competitors Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ  ) and Boston Scientific (NYSE: BSX  ) , can hold open arteries that have been narrowed by plaque blockages, relieving pain, but not doing much to prevent future heart attacks. That's because the vast majority of heart attacks occur at smaller arterial obstructions that would never be stented in the first place.

A better solution, it seems, is a healthier lifestyle -- cutting back on the smokes, losing weight, reducing the blood pressure, and addressing high cholesterol levels. Of course, a quotidian prescription like that isn't likely to change our demands on cardiologists, especially given recent evidence that obesity may be overtaking smoking as the No. 1 preventable killer among Americans.

For the time being, the quick, hands-on fix is translating into huge business for the stent industry. A million procedures will be performed this year, and Boston Scientific hopes its Taxus stent can deliver 70% of a $3 billion market. Last fall, it battled to a draw with J&J when neither could convince a Delaware judge to stop the other from marketing the popular new drug-coated stents. J&J has countered by teaming with yet another competitor, Guidant (NYSE: GDT  ) . Medtronic (NYSE: MDT  ) and partner Abbott Laboratories (NYSE: ABT  ) are also posturing for a chunk of the billions.

A sea of change in attitudes toward cardiovascular health might put a ding in stent sales, but it would be likely to help companies that cash in on anti-cholesterol drugs, such as Pfizer (NYSE: PFE  ) , Merck (NYSE: MRK  ) , and Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY  ) .

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Fool contributor Seth Jayson thinks jogging and an occasional beer present the most cost-effective way to keep down the cholesterol. He owns no stake in any company mentioned above. View his Fool profile here.

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