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Pfizer's French headquarters is surveying groups of patients in France on whether legal restrictions in Europe on the types of information that drug companies can provide to patients should be lifted.
Some health experts see the survey as part of a push by the drug industry to allow direct advertising of drugs to European consumers.
The six question survey, which has been criticised for being biased, begins by asking whether patients believe that health information “can be distributed only by public institutions” and goes on to ask whether the law prohibiting companies from mentioning the name and the characteristics of drugs in advertising to the public “should evolve.” A final question asks their opinion of the European Commission's model brochure giving information on diabetes, an initiative that had industry involvement.
Sylvie Cukier, director of patient relations at Pfizer France, explained that the questionnaire was needed to provide some context for an upcoming training session for patients, on the subject of patient information, that Pfizer is holding later this month in Paris. The session is part of a regular series of training sessions that Pfizer holds for groups representing patients with conditions treated by its products and is purely a French initiative.
She said that the upcoming session is being held in the interests of transparency. “It is absolutely necessary for patient groups to understand the current legal situation and what is happening at a European level,” she said.
Pfizer's survey doesn't tell the respondents the types of information that companies are currently prohibited under French and European law from providing to patients and to the public.
Ms Cukier said that the industry cannot under any circumstances promote its products to the general public. But she also said that patients find it hard to get information on clinical trials they might participate in and on products that are in the pipeline. Companies are prohibited from providing such information directly, she said.
Claire Compagnon, a consultant with the French association of non-profit health organisations, the Collectif Inter-Associatif sur la Santé, said, “I think that there are two issues. One is that they [Pfizer] only mention information, not advertising. It is presented as an equal exchange between partners. Secondly, they speak only of patients, whereas it's very easy to imagine that the intent is to target the general public.”
She finds it especially disturbing that Pfizer has not asked more neutral questions soliciting patients' views, such as under what conditions the industry would be considered a legitimate information source. She pointed to the currently legitimate role of manufacturers in providing approved product information in information leaflets for patients.
She also pointed out that certain words used in the questionnaire are unlikely to be accidental. For example, the survey asks whether patients' groups would like “freer communication” of information on available drugs and those that are under development. Using the concept of freedom helps to frame the current restrictions on drug advertising as an attack on individual rights, she said.