AstraZeneca is going for the jugular – or rather, the carotid – with new ads emphasizing Crestor’s effectiveness at slowing the progression of atherosclerosis.

The campaign, by Digitas Health and Saatchi & Saatchi Consumer Health + Wellness, comes just a couple months after Merck/Schering-Plough’s ENHANCE trial backfired, casting doubt on the plaque-fighting ability of Vytorin. Running with the tagline “It’s time,” the ads make timely use of a claim AstraZeneca staked out with its METEOR study, released last summer. Based on the METEOR data, AstraZeneca calls Crestor “the only cholesterol-lowering medication in its class with not only the proven efficacy to lower LDL-C and raise HDL-C but also to slow the progression of atherosclerosis in at any stage of the disease.”

Sixty-second TV ads debuted Feb. 21 on national and regional programming, followed by print ads that hit yesterday in magazines and newspapers. The print ads show a busy Boomer chef, her carotid artery highlighted, under the headline: “While you’ve been building your life, plaque may have been building in your arteries.”

The ads come as bad press and congressional scrutiny have prompted the drug’s main branded rivals, Merck/Schering-Plough’s Vytorin and Pfizer’s Lipitor, to go dark for awhile. Merck/Schering-Plough pulled ads for Vytorin in late January following the release of preliminary ENHANCE data which showed that the drug failed to slow the progression of plaque buildup in the carotid arteries of a particularly at-risk population that had already been on statins.

A month later, Pfizer, stung by bad press from a congressional investigation of its Lipitor ads featuring artificial heart inventor Dr. Robert Jarvik, pulled the campaign. The company plans to debut new work through agency Kaplan Thaler Group in several weeks.

In addition to branded work, AstraZeneca is running an unbranded disease education campaign, called “Us Against Athero,” including online and a touring exhibition.

The statin market has been buffeted by the 2006 introduction of generic Zocor (simvastatin) and, more recently, by the controversy surrounding the Vytorin ENHANCE trial.

For 2007, US sales of category leader Lipitor, were down 27% to $12 billion. Sales of Vytorin, which combines Zocor and Zetia, rose 34% to $2.4 billion and sales of Crestor were up 30% to $1.7 billion. By mid-February, Verispan data showed a double-digit decline in Vytorin prescriptions since the release of the ENHANCE data.