An organisation backed by the pharmaceutical industry has filed a Citizen's Petition with the US Food and Drug Administration, asking that that direct-to-consumer advertising for drugs be simplified.

The Coalition for Healthcare Communication – made up of public relations companies, medical communications firms and marketing, advertising and publishing houses and support by drug industry funding – said it wants to made consumer advertising of drugs ‘simpler and clearer’.

“At present, FDA’s prescription drug advertising rules require complicated information that many consumers cannot understand or use on a practical basis,” according to John Kamp, the CHC’s executive director. “The result is more confusion than communication.”

At the heart of the petition is a desire to do away with the verbatim inclusion of drug warning labels in DTC ads, which can scare consumers away from using a drug or cause unnecessary anxiety, and instead encourage more dialogue between the users and their doctors. Instead of a individual warnings, each ad would carry a generic statement that all drugs have risks and benefits.

The petition comes at a time when the FDA has started an investigation into the role of DTC advertising. This kicked off with a public meeting last November, at which the agency said that experience with DTC was now sufficient to guide a re-evaluation of its regulation. The FDA has six months to respond to the petition.

Opponents of DTC advertising, spending on which reached $4 billion in 2004, maintain that rather than promoting public health, it increased drug costs by encouraging unnecessary prescribing. Last August the industry agreed a voluntary code of conduct to encourage balanced emphasis on the risks as well as benefits of medicines.

The US and New Zealand are the only industrialized countries that allow DTC advertising of prescription drugs, and New Zealand is currently undertaking an enquiry into the issue.