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An international alliance of consumer groups, insurers, and professional associations has stepped up its attacks on the European Commission's current round of public consultation over drug advertising.
The EC released a report for public consultation earlier this year on current sources of patient information, and it is seeking public comment by the end of June. The report gives strong support to the idea of allowing drug companies to give more information directly to patients, a proposal that critics argue will undermine Europe's strict ban on direct to consumer drug advertising.
In an open letter sent to two commissioners last week, the alliance, which includes Health Action International, the Medicines in Europe Forum, and the International Society of Drug Bulletins, attacked the “shaky and undocumented nature of the commission's analysis and the resultant bias in its conclusions.”
Specifically the alliance argues that the commission's report gives an incomplete list of currently available sources of information for patients and alleges that the report omits many providers of information that are independent of drug companies.
Clearly supporting the industry's desire to speak more directly to consumers, the EC report concludes that the “pharmaceutical industry possesses the key information on their medicines but this information can currently not be made available to patients and healthcare professionals.”
In response, the letter to the commissioners argues that “key” information about the sometimes serious side effects of drugs is often overlooked by companies, or even covered up, as seen in recent high profile scandals involving some drugs for arthritis, psychosis, and diabetes. “Increasingly frequent health scandals are on-going reminders of the medical and legal dangers of excessive promotion of new medicines.”
The EC has defended its consultation process and rejected the allegation that it is planning proposals to lift the ban on advertising drugs to consumers. Similarly the drug industry's public position is that it does not want full advertising in Europe, rather just the ability to give patients more information.
In an interview with the BMJ, arguing for a loosening of the rules, the director general of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries Associations, Brian Agar, compared the situation in Europe to North Korea. “We can't say anything,” he said.
By contrast, drug companies in the United States spend more than $10m (£5m; €7.5m) a day advertising their latest blockbuster drugs direct to consumers in Hollywood-style television commercials and full page advertisements in popular magazines and newspapers. Proponents argue that this can empower consumers, but critics claim it skews prescribing towards the latest most expensive drugs and marginalises older, cheaper remedies and non-drug solutions.
The draft report on current provision of information to patients taking medicinal products is available at http://ec.europa.eu.