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International consumer group slates drug companies' marketing practices

BMJ 2006; 333 doi: (Published 29 June 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;333:14
  1. Michael Day
  1. London

    Drug companies continue to pull the wool over the eyes of patients and doctors, concludes a new report from Consumers International. The report lambasts the industry for its lack of transparency and unscrupulous marketing.

    Consumers International has called on governments to rein in the industry's practices that “misinform consumers about the benefits of the drugs they are buying.”

    It warns that drug companies are adopting new ways to influence consumers, such as sponsoring patients' groups and funding disease awareness campaigns, as well as using old methods such as offering hospitality to medical experts or “opinion leaders.”

    Richard Lloyd, the director general of Consumers International, said: “The pharmaceutical industry spends nearly twice as much on marketing as it does on research and development, yet consumers know next to nothing about where this money is going. Marketing regulation must be revised to demand more transparency from drug companies.”

    The report's survey of the 20 biggest drugs companies found that:

    Only one of the companies (Bristol-Meyers Squibb) provided its marketing code of conduct directly to consumers

    Only two reported publicly reported violations of the code of conduct

    Seventeen of the 20 have been guilty of breaching codes of practice on social responsibility in their promotion of drugs

    Only one (Eli Lilly) provided information on policies towards patients' groups, and

    Less than half provided information about codes of conduct on providing gifts and hospitality to healthcare professionals.

    Charles Medawar, the director of the UK charity Social Audit, which campaigns for greater transparency in the drugs industry, said: “How ironic [it is that] this reports comes precisely in the same time frame as the government's decision to pull the rug from under the Drugs and Therapeutics Bulletin.” There was an outcry in May when the Department of Health said it would cease funding the independent prescribing guide for doctors (BMJ 2006;332:1109, 13 May).

    However, Harvey Bale, director general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations, said that the Consumers International report was an “analytical mishmash of assertions” about drug companies' corporate social responsibility and marketing methods.

    He denied that the industry spent nearly twice as much on marketing as it did on research and development. “Those data actually collected show that R and D [research and development] expenditures exceed promotional expenses by 40%.”

    Richard Ley, a spokesman for the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, said, “The British code is extremely strict and has just been tightened up, so I don't believe this is a problem at all in the UK.”

    However, dubious behaviour by UK subsidiaries of big international drug firms is not unheard of. In February this year it emerged that Abbott Laboratories had been suspended from the association for six months when it came to light that two of its employees took a doctor to a lap dancing club in 2004 (BMJ 2006;332:381).

    Branding the Cure: A Consumer Perspective on Corporate Social Responsibility, Drug Promotion and the Pharmaceutical Industry in Europe is available at

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