Feature Advertising prescription drugs

Sweetening the pill

BMJ 2007; 334 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39153.511701.BE (Published 29 March 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;334:664
  1. Hannah Brown, freelance journalist
  1. Cambridge
  1. Hannah{at}two-cultures.com

    European proposals to allow drug companies to provide health information are meeting strong opposition. Hannah Brown explains the arguments

    When, in 2002, the European parliament voted resoundingly against allowing drug companies to provide information about their products directly to patients, public health lobby groups thought that the matter had been firmly dismissed. However, five years on, the resurgence of intense discussions about the “liberalisation of patient information,” as the European Commission refers to it, suggests that parliament's resolve is set to be challenged again.

    At issue is a set of proposals for relaxing the current laws that limit drug companies' communication with patients to the fixed format safety summary contained inside drug packaging. For the commission, which drafts European Union legislation, this debate is a trade-off between nurturing the competitiveness of one of the EU's biggest industries and respecting the concerns of public health organisations. What worries campaign groups most is that the commission seems to be ignoring them.

    Hard lobbying by the drug industry has convinced the EU enterprise and health commissioners that increasing the extent to which drug companies can provide information to patients is essential to stop Europe's drug industry falling further behind those of the United States and Japan. The rationale seems to be that giving patients more information would increase the demand for treatment. Drug companies also assert that this change would benefit patients. US residents, they argue, have their information needs met by reams of reliable reference material financed by the industry's huge resources. Patients in the EU, by contrast, must rely on the hotchpotch of potentially flawed internet sites. However, health campaign groups insist that drug companies cannot provide the independent information consumers need. And research published last month suggesting that UK consumers are put off by medical information sites that contain a …

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