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
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
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
Once established, the long-term implications for the PR industry will
IN THE PRO CAMP
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
'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
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
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
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
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