Intended for healthcare professionals


Advertising by pharmaceutical companies in eBMJ

BMJ 1999; 318 doi: (Published 27 February 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;318:598

The issue should be debated properly

  1. Sheila McKechnie, Director
  1. Consumers' Association, London NW1 4DF
  2. BMJ.
  3. London WC1H 9JR

    EDITOR—It is regrettable that the BMJ has taken the decision to accept advertising from the pharmaceutical industry on its website. This will serve only to undermine the spirit and intended practice of the Medicines Act and the industry code of practice that explicitly prohibits the advertising of prescription drugs to the public.

    Whereas the Medicines Control Agency might think that advertising by pharmaceutical companies on the BMJ's website is acceptable because the intended audience is doctors and not the public, in reality far more patients will visit the online journal than read the subscription only paper version.

    In the United States the impact on health of the billion dollar business of advertising prescription drugs to consumers has raised serious concerns. The implications of advertising prescription drugs to consumers must be considered, particularly in the light of rational prescribing and clinical excellence.

    I urge you to reconsider your decision and to ensure that we do not slide into a situation in which the pharmaceutical industry has direct and unmanaged links with consumers before there has been a proper debate on the issue.

    Editor's response

    1. Richard Smith, Editor
    1. Consumers' Association, London NW1 4DF
    2. BMJ.
    3. London WC1H 9JR

      We have severe doubts about direct to consumer advertising of pharmaceutical products and will shortly be publishing an editorial saying so. There is, however, a world of difference between advertising designed to appeal to consumers that might appear on television and advertising designed for doctors appearing on the BMJ's website. About 5% of those who visit the website each week are “members of the public,” which is probably about the same as the proportion reading the paper version of the BMJ. My own mother reads the BMJ in Bath public library.

      In addition, those who visit the BMJ's website are not, by definition, a random sample of the population. I think it highly unlikely that rational prescribing and clinical excellence will be undermined by advertisements on the website. Indeed, if we consider the site as a whole then the opposite may be the result. Advertising may allow us to continue to keep access to our site free—to both doctors and the public worldwide. The benefits of free access to a large searchable database of high quality information on all aspects of medicine will, I think, far outweigh any hypothetical risks from exposure to the public of advertising intended for doctors.

      Furthermore, if there is demand we can set up the site so that visitors can either choose to accept advertising and access the site free or have no advertising and pay. Surely the Consumers' Association would support such choice?

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