Intended for healthcare professionals


Canada may be forced to allow direct to consumer advertising

BMJ 2006; 332 doi: (Published 22 June 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:1469
  1. Alan Cassels
  1. Victoria, British Columbia

    The Canadian government will respond this week to a lawsuit brought by one of the country's biggest media companies. The company is claiming that it should have the right to carry drug advertisements that are aimed directly at consumers.

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    If CanWest wins, Canadians will be subjected to advertisements for prescription drugs like this one from US Cosmopolitan

    CanWest Global Communications, which owns most of Canada's major daily newspapers, a major television channel, and cable TV channels, launched a court case last December challenging Canadian federal law that bans US-style advertisements for prescription drugs. It says that the current law discriminates against its business interests and is ineffective.

    If the company wins, Canadians may well be subjected to the same volume of drug advertising that their neighbours south of the border experience.

    The Canadian government has to file its response to the lawsuit by 30 June.

    Currently drug companies in Canada use two types of drug advertising aimed at the public: reminder advertisements (which give a drug's name without mentioning what the drug is for but urge consumers to “talk to their doctor”) and disease awareness advertisements (mentioning a condition such as hair loss but not mentioning a specific treatment).

    CanWest claims that the current law restricts its freedom of expression under the Canadian charter of rights and freedoms and that it is being denied the ability to earn advertising revenue like its US counterparts. The Canadian drug advertising market is estimated to be worth about $US450m (£245m; €360m) a year.

    The argument that the Canadian restrictions are ineffective because so much full blown US direct to consumer advertising already pours over the border—meaning that Canadians are already subjected to US drug advertisements on a daily basis—is contentious.

    Some experts are arguing for better enforcement of the current law, saying that the appearance on Canadian television of certain advertisements, including one currently running for sildenafil (Viagra), is evidence of the Canadian health department's non-enforcement of the law.

    Barbara Mintzes, an expert on direct to consumer advertising at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, says that enforcing Canada's existing laws is of paramount importance.

    She said, “CanWest's solution is to get rid of the law.

    “This is like saying that if corner stores are getting away with selling cigarettes to 13 year olds, we might as well get rid of the age restrictions.”

    CanWest will not comment on the lawsuit, saying that the issue is before the court.

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