With the European Commission due to publish its long-awaited report on the provision of medicines information to patients before the end of the month, consumer activists have urged it to resist what they call “significant pressure” to let pharmaceutical manufacturers address patients directly.

“The inherent conflict of interest of pharmaceutical companies in providing information directly to patients is so obvious that we can not imagine that any policy would allow it in Europe,” said Monique Goyens, director general of the European Consumers Organisation (BEUC), an umbrella group which represents 41 consumer associations. “Patients deserve information which is unbiased and of the highest possible quality, and other more reliable and independent sources, [such as the European Medicines Agency], must be promoted,” she added.

Ms Goyens was speaking at a half-day conference of European legislators, industry, patient groups and other stakeholders held at the European Parliament to discuss the issue and co-hosted by the three European Parliament representatives in the EU High-Level Pharmaceutical Forum – Françoise Grossetete, Dagmar Roth-Behrendt and Jorgo Chatzimarkakis.

Brian Ager, director general of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations, told delegates there was an urgent need for reform in the European Union to reduce current inequalities among different population groups and between member states in accessing high-quality information. “We firmly believe that this can only be achieved through patient information partnerships, as they already exist in few member states, involving all stakeholders who commit themselves to provide quality information of the highest standard,” he said.

Hubertus Cranz, director general of the Association of the European Self-Medication Industry called for legislation to allow the addition of non-promotional information on the medicine package, so that companies could for example list website addresses providing valuable additional information on particular conditions, such as smoking cessation. Mr Cranz also noted the importance of health professionals in providing information on non-prescription medicines and the need to improve doctors’ and pharmacists’ training so that their support potential for consumers is fully developed.

Information or advertising?
However, Jim Murray, an advisor to BEUC, said that recent efforts to lift some of the current restrictions on information provision by drugmakers were too narrow, not based on any overall or coherent policy and would not lead to better health outcomes; in fact worse ones were more probable and with increased costs, he said. If the restrictions were lifted, it would be impossible to make an effective distinction between information and advertising, he claimed, and forecast that the results would be: a bias towards high-margin medicines and the “medicalisation” of certain conditions; a bias against non-drug therapies and improving lifestyles; increased pressure on the doctor/patient relationship and on health care budgets – “as information is pumped out about medicines that are being assessed for reimbursement or that are subject to emerging doubts in the pharmacovigilance process;” and a move toward direct reporting to the companies of adverse effects.

Mr Murray also said that the pressure for lifting the restrictions had come from drugmakers, including the US industry, plus the European Publishers Council and Gunter Verheugen, vice-president of the European Commission and Commissioner in charge of Enterprise and Industry, who has referred to the right of pharmaceutical companies to provide information about their products. Mr Murray said that BEUC does not believe that the current restrictions are an abuse of those rights, but added: “if they feel otherwise, the companies have the means to seek a remedy in the courts.”

Following the adoption of its report on the provision of information to patients by the end of 2007, the Commission is expected to announce its proposals for legislative change in fourth-quarter 2008.