The European Commission has been told that the “only rationale” for its current plans to ease certain controls on the provision of prescription drug information to the public “seems to be to benefit the commercial interests of pharmaceutical companies by expanding their markets and helping them to build brand loyalty.”

The long-delayed proposals do not meet citizens’ needs and would expose them to “intensive promotion” of new drugs, claims a statement issued this week by 29 European organisations representing patient groups, social insurance bodies, physicians and others, coordinated by the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA).

This in turn would lead to increased demand for medicines that patients may not need or should not take, they add, and warn that “the burden of drug-induced harm and unwarranted health spending created by increased consumption of medicines - notably the cost of managing adverse drug reactions - would be borne by the state, ultimately jeopardising the long-term financial viability of the member states’ health systems.”

Instead, the groups call on the Commission to:
- make the officially-approved leaflet more useful and accessible for patients by ensuring that pharmaceutical companies “consistently abide by their obligations relative to drug packaging and patient leaflets;”
- optimise communication between patients and health professionals;
- encourage national agencies to become proactive and more transparent providers of information on health products;
- develop and reinforce existing sources of comparative, unbiased information on treatment choices; and
- put “a rapid and permanent end to the confusion of roles between the pharmaceutical companies and other actors in the healthcare sector.” This will require full implementation and enforcement of the EU regulation on pharmaceutical promotion, they say.

The European Patients Forum (EPF), which took part in a workshop held earlier this month by the European Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) and the Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO) to discuss the issue, says the current legislative proposal “has a narrow scope and demands a public health perspective.” This would require educating patients in understanding and use of the information and training health professionals to communicate better, while patient organisations should be involved in developing the information, validating it and making it available to patients, it says.

At the workshop, EPF spokeswoman Roxana Radulescu said a recent study had shown that 74% of patients want information from health professionals about which web sites they should consult, and Swedish Conservative MEP Christofer Fjellner, the ENVI rapporteur for the legislation, added that while the Internet can be a very good source of information, it also gives access to lots of false information. “What we can do is create better information on the Internet," he said.

Paul Woods of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) agreed that a “European” solution is needed, asking: “why should patients go to US or unreliable sites to search for information?"

Portuguese Socialist MEP Antonio Fernando Correia de Campos emphasized that product information must not just be taken from the manufacturer. “If we want quality information, we also need time for international or national agencies to analyse it,” he said.

- In late January, the incoming Spanish presidency of the EU said it would not be continuing discussions on the patient information proposal during its six-month term. A Spanish Health Ministry spokesman added that it was “not proper” for information on medicines to go direct to patients without the filter of a health professional.