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Ban On Advertising Prescription Drugs

Report Calls For Ban On Advertising Prescription Drugs

A group of senior academic General Practitioners from all New Zealand medical schools has delivered a report to the Minister of Health, Annette King calling for a ban on advertising prescription medicines to the public.

Spokesperson, Professor Les Toop from the Christchurch School of Medicine and Health Sciences, says the report "Direct to Consumer Advertising of Prescription Medicines in New Zealand - for Health or for Profit" summarises the international and New Zealand evidence supporting a ban on direct to consumer advertising (DTCA).

“My colleagues and I from Departments of General Practice, put together the report following a meeting with the Minister to express our concern at the negative effects DTCA is having in New Zealand. Only New Zealand and America allow drug companies to advertise directly to the public,” says Professor Toop. “It is banned everywhere else and for good reasons.”

Professor Toop says there is a lot of concern about the negative effects of DTCA in both the USA and N.Z. from both health professionals and consumer groups.

“This is a very important issue internationally,” says Professor Toop. “The European Parliament recently threw out legislation that would have allowed the beginnings of DTCA in Europe (by a 12 to 1 majority). Similarly in America, a recent U.S. General Accounting Office report to Congress detailed a number of problems. The huge growth in pharmaceutical expenditure is not seen as sustainable in America and much of that increase is attributed to DTCA. Even with tight regulations, many companies flout the rules for advertising despite being repeatedly warned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. There have been some significant safety issues around DTC advertised medicines.”

The report to the Minister reveals that US$2.5 billion was spent in the USA in 2001 advertising prescription drugs directly to the public. Health professionals in this country are expecting stiff opposition to the call for a ban from those with vested interests, in particular the pharmaceutical and advertising industries. The report details clear evidence in support of a ban on DTCA and is looking to encourage public debate on the issue.

Because New Zealand is only one of two countries allowing DTCA, the international drug companies wanting to introduce it elsewhere are closely watching developments here.

Attempts have already been made to discredit a recent opinion survey of GPs carried out by the academic group even before the results have been published. A questionnaire was sent to all New Zealand GPs with a covering letter clearly explaining the concerns, the position and the intentions of the group. Questions sought views on the effects of DTCA has had on prescribers and patients.

“The survey was designed to gauge the level of positive or negative feeling of our colleagues towards DTCA” explains Professor Toop. “The comments from the 1600 who replied to the survey (half of all NZ GPs) showed that feelings about this issue are very strong following several recent high profile TV advertising campaigns for prescription medicines. GPs are particularly upset by the misleading content of many of the advertisements and the commercial pressure this puts them under to prescribe advertised drugs, even when they’re no better than existing alternatives or are not suitable for the patient. Explaining why particular drugs are unsuitable or unaffordable takes valuable time that someone has to pay for. GPs have told us that patients, particularly the elderly, see these ads and become unnecessarily anxious that they are not getting the right treatment. ” There are many other problems with the advertising of medicines directly to the public according to Professor Toop. He and his colleagues believe the public wants and needs access to quality independent health information that provides a balanced view of the benefits, risks and costs of all treatment options. Individual brand advertising will never be able to give that balance. “The public want and need information about medicines but they want to get it from a trustworthy source.”

The report to Health Minister Annette King says DTCA is designed to stimulate demand and gain market share for individual branded drugs. The evidence from N.Z. and America is that drug advertisements use all of the usual persuasive techniques: playing on the emotions, over emphasising the efficacy of medicines, minimising the risks and side effects, rarely mentioning costs and almost never mentioning alternatives.

Recognising the need for more quality information to help people make informed choices with their doctors, the authors of the report are calling on the government to set up an independent agency to provide consumer health information. This would provide information on the comparative risks and benefits of the drug and non-drug treatments for a condition. The recommendation is that this agency be run as a consortium by representatives from a range of health professional and consumer groups. This sort of independent information is now available in several countries and is very popular. The six authors of the report are Professor Les Toop & Dr Dee Richards (Christchurch School of Medicine), Professor Tony Dowell (Wellington School of Medicine), Professor Murray Tilyard (Dunedin School of Medicine) and Bruce Arroll (Auckland School of Medicine) and Mr Tony Fraser (Best Practice Advocacy Centre).

They are urging the Minister of Health to introduce legislation to prohibit the advertising of prescription medicines directly to the public, and in its place to set up an independent consumer health information service.

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