Drug Info War Heats Up

Aug 01, 2002

The debate about direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising of prescription medicines and internet information about therapeutic products is heating up again. Non-product-specific disease awareness campaigns are now allowed. In fact, Europeans were recently treated to retired Brazilian soccer star Pel瞨sponsored by Pfizer) urging the afflicted to seek help for erectile dysfunction during World Cup commercial breaks. But there is still great resistance to the idea of product-specific advertising.

Providing useful therapeutic information for patients surfing the internet is another matter. Although pharma companies claim it is only right-and in consumers' interests-that they be able to disseminate information about their products, some consumer groups are cynical about whether the companies can be trusted to deliver it in a non-promotional way.

The UK Consumers Association has taken the lead in the battle against DTC ads, and it is wary of allowing pharma companies to provide product information. It continues to lobby the European Union to keep the present controls in place on both.

Speaking on patients' behalf, Angela Coulter, CEO of the Picker Institute Europe, a group that works with European healthcare providers to obtain patient feedback and promote patient-centered care, expresses a desire for product education: "Patients need information about their medicines that is honest about both benefits and harms. It must be well designed and concise but not alarmist or patronizing. If possible, the information should be neutral, yet explicit about the source."

The European AIDS Treatment Group agrees. "Regardless of the ban on advertising, Europeans have a legitimate right to information about prescription pharmaceuticals. That information should be made widely available to all those who wish to improve their knowledge about those products."

Industry associations do not disagree with the stance against advertising, so they are not pushing to produce North American-style DTC in print media or on television. But the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry believes that pharmaceutical companies should be able to provide product information for patients.

Says an ABPI spokesman, "The growth of the internet, which crosses international boundaries in an unprecedented manner, means that patients or other interested parties can access information available in other countries, if not their own, regardless of current legal restrictions. Unfortunately, there is much misinformation on the internet, while, ironically, manufacturers are forbidden from providing the most basic, technical data. Patients have a right to balanced and scientific information about medicines from the people who have developed and produced them."

Though consumer paranoia about pharma company candor may be understandable, it is, in this instance, self-defeating, while the ABPI stance is eminently reasonable. Product advertising is not the answer. But if patients are better informed, they will be able to engage in more useful dialogues with their doctors and more likely to take an active role in their own healthcare.