HEAD TO HEAD: Drugs advertising poses a PR dilemma - The European Commission's decision to relax the ban on marketing. drugs has split the pharmaceuticals sector, says Steve Menary. PRWeek rounds up the views of those in favour and against

The EC last week announcedplans for a limited series of trials on

drugs for Aids, diabetes and asthma, under which information on

prescription drugs would be more readily available than ever before. The

proposals have already attracted vehement opposition. There is suspicion

in the sector that healthcare PR networks' niche - to communicate

without breaking the ban on advertising ethical drugs - will be

undermined by loosening the rules on information.



Kinetic MD Karen Moyse admits some of the proposals represent a cause

for concern, as well as an opportunity: 'We all want to take more

responsibility but only with the right level of control.'



Opponents, led in the UK by the Consumers' Association (CA), point to

experiences in the US, where drugs are advertised across media, and

predict a huge impact on the NHS. The CA claims drugs advertising in the

US led to an 84 per cent leap in the drugs bill between 1993 and 1998. A

recent CA survey showed that just six per cent of respondents would

trust drug firms to provide accurate information on the best

treatment.



On the other side of the debate, the antis argue that the drugs making

the most profit would be advertised more frequently, leading to patients

demanding these treatments and inflating the NHS's drugs bill.



CA principal policy adviser Clara Mackay says: 'Governments must put the

consumer first, but current restrictions in advertising prescription

drugs to the public should not be lifted. Patients need better

information on drugs and treatments but it is not appropriate for the

pharma industry to provide this.'



In contrast, the pharmaceutical industry denies that relaxing the ban

would lead to a dystopian society with drugs advertising seeping out

everywhere.



The EC's plans are expected to allow drug companies to create

interactive websites and to openly advertise treatments, in a way to be

monitored over five years. For some, this approach is far too timid.

'We're less than enthusiastic about what Europe is doing because it's

pathetically minor,' says Richard Ley, head of media relations at the

Association of British Pharmaceutical Industries, which represents major

UK drug manufacturers.



Fiona Tigar, head of press at UK drugs giant AstraZeneca, adds: 'We

still don't know the real detail about how it's going to run and how

we're going to monitor this information.'



A period of consultation is now underway with both sides furiously

lobbying the EC to establish the details and limits on company/patient

contact.



Once established, the long-term implications for the PR industry will

become clearer.



IN THE PRO CAMP

Bill Fullagar

Title: president

Organisation: Association of British Pharmaceutical Industries (ABPI)



'The European proposal is a small step in the right direction because it

acknowledges, for the first time, the need to provide good quality

information to the patient about their medicines. It is information the

UK pharmaceutical industry wants to be able to give patients. Some

opponents confuse the provision of information with North American-style

media and TV advertising campaigns, which my association is not

advocating.



'With the advent of the internet, the amount of information available

about healthcare and medicines has mushroomed. It is surely absurd that,

while websites giving information about medicines can be launched by

anyone, the people who know most about them are forbidden to pass their

accumulated knowledge on to patients and carers.



'Pharma companies usually spend an average of ten to 12 years developing

a new medicine, which gives them an unparalleled database of knowledge

and experience that so many patients and carers would find

invaluable.



Is there any other industry where manufacturers are forbidden to

communicate with customers?



'The few who oppose allowing the industry to communicate quality

information - interestingly, the Patients' Association's views are very

different from those of the Consumers' Association - suggest that such a

move would lead to a large increase in the NHS medicines bill. It's

certainly true that, thanks to postcode prescribing, patients are not

always given information about appropriate treatments that are deemed

"too expensive". If we are able to help them find out what is available

and how it can help them deal with their condition better, it would be a

price most patients would consider worth paying.



'I don't believe the NHS medicines bill will soar. Patients who have a

better understanding of their medicines and how they can help them are

far more likely to work harder at making sure they work to their best

advantage. When that happens, it can only prove cheaper and more

effective in the long run.



'People deserve good quality information about their medicines and they

should not be denied it.'



IN THE ANTI CAMP

Emma Harrison

Title: public affairs officer on health

Organisation: The Consumers' Association



'On the face of it, the arguments put forward by those who would like to

see the UK allow advertising of prescription medicines look

convincing.



We're told advertising can provide patients with a wealth of information

about what medicines are currently available, offer choice between

competing brands and even alert patients to conditions they didn't even

know existed, and to the treatments available to deal with them.



'Patients will be better informed about health issues and more able to

play an active role in deciding what medicines will work best for

them.



It's a clever, well-spun argument which is not surprising given that the

ad industry, which stands to gain as much as the pharmaceutical industry

from direct-to-consumer-advertising (DTCA), has a keen interest in

seeing it introduced to the UK. But beneath the spin there are a lot of

questions about just how much the public would gain if manufacturers

were allowed to advertise prescription drugs.



'Firstly, in order to be truly empowered, patients need access to the

whole story - this means complete and accurate information about the

effectiveness, benefits and risks of the treatments that are available

for their condition.



'The US experience has shown that, in reality, DTCA provides information

on a selective basis and is geared toward selling drugs rather than

empowering consumers. That is the real truth of the matter.



'Manufacturers spend billions of US dollars, mainly on ads for expensive

drugs for which there is mass-market appeal, such as treatments for

allergies or baldness. Treatments for less marketable conditions, and by

definition less profitable for the industry, will receive

proportionately less attention.



'While there is a great deal of evidence that shows DTCA in the US has

substantially increased sales of specific drugs, there's no evidence to

show that it has led to better choices for patients. So let's stop

dressing up this argument as a genuine debate about empowering patients

and see DTCA for what it is - a means of increasing profit for the

pharmaceutical industry.'



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