Concern is growing that direct-to-patient advertising of branded medicines may be able to creep into the UK through the back door if new European Commission proposals regarding the provision of drug information come into force.

A package of pharmaceutical legislation proposed by the EC in December last year stresses that the current ban on direct-to-consumer advertising should indeed be upheld, but also opens a door for pharmaceutical companies to provide information about their branded medicines through the specified channels of medicines-related internet websites or the rather murkily defined “health-related publications”.

This, those in support of the move claim, would give more patients better access to non-promotional information about the medicines they are taking enabling them to make better informed choices, but those against the idea cite concern over the unclear distinction between ‘information’ and ‘advertising’ which could ultimately allow DTC advertising to sneak in unnoticed.

According to an editorial in this month’s Drugs and Therapeutics Bulletin, acceptance of the EC’s proposals would “permit public dissemination of promotional information about prescription-only medicines, masquerading as ‘information provision’.

Effective policing?
Furthermore, under the plans individual European Union member states would be responsible for ensuring that the provision of such information via these channels is monitored, but the DTB questions whether this would be effective enough “given the increased resource involved”.

And while it concedes that there is a need for independent, bona fide information to help patients make sound treatment choices, pharmaceutical companies’ “inherent conflict of interest means it is naive to expect them ever to provide such information”, it claims.

The Medical and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency is in favour of the industry playing a more proactive role in the provision of medicines information, and is currently holding a public consultation on Commission’s proposals for reform. However, the DTB argues that the Agency “needs to bear in mind the negative experience of direct-to-consumer advertising in the USA, where infringements of rules on information provision have tended to be detected far too late and where there have been difficulties in imposing effective penalties”.

The MHRA’s consultation is scheduled to end on August 14.