Feature Commercial interests

Product placement in the waiting room

BMJ 2008; 336 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39589.491030.BD (Published 05 June 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:1274
  1. Leo Hickman, journalist
  1. leo.hickman{at}guardian.co.uk

Are “health” leaflets displayed in the waiting room just a Trojan horse allowing private companies direct access to patients? Leo Hickman reports

It is clear that the NHS is under increasing pressure from commercial interests. A handful of hospitals across the United Kingdom now have Burger King or McDonald’s operating fast food franchises on site.

But one area that has so far been largely ignored is the way commercial interests are able to advertise in waiting rooms without any vetting. Currently few safeguards exist within the NHS to protect against such infiltration.

I recently undertook a six month investigation into how companies are allowed to pay considerable amounts of money so that they can target patients in waiting rooms, knowing that patients are likely to think that any advertising is endorsed by their general practitioner.

Advice or advertising?

More worrying, perhaps, some companies, via their trade associations, are producing health “advice” leaflets with information about their products. Shouldn’t the NHS, not the companies, disseminate such information?

My investigation began when I picked up a leaflet at my local general practice, called Coffee and Your Health. It is distributed by the British Coffee Association, a trade association representing major coffee sellers such as Nestlé, Kraft Foods, and Douwe Egberts. The leaflet aims to tackle “the confusion about whether coffee and caffeine is good for you.”

The leaflet says: “It is recommended that women who are pregnant or trying to conceive stick to 300 mg of caffeine a day—approximately three to four cups of coffee.”

Caffeine consumption and pregnancy is a controversial area. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is funding a study of 2500 women on the subject that is due to be published later this year. It was commissioned after a …

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