December 11th, 2008

Europe Moves to Loosen Ban Against Drug Ads

By Jeanne Whalen
The Wall Street Journal

LONDON—European officials moved one step closer to allowing drug companies to publish information about prescription medicines in magazines and on Web sites, in a development that some critics are calling a loosening of Europe’s strict ban on drug advertising.

The European Commission proposed legislation Wednesday that would let drug companies give consumers “objective and nonpromotional” information about their medicines in print and online. Currently, drug companies can’t provide any information to European consumers, except on leaflets found inside drug packaging. The legislative proposals must be approved by the European Parliament and Council of Ministers before becoming law, a process that could take years.

In proposing the change, the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, said the current rules are outmoded. Modern consumers are becoming more involved in their medical treatment and are increasingly looking for information about drugs and other treatments o nline, GŁnter Verheugen, vice president of enterprise and industry at the Commission, said at a news conference. Drug companies should be allowed to provide basic, factual information to meet this demand, he said.

He stressed that the EU will continue to ban advertising, in a sign that Europe is concerned about protecting consumers from biased, promotional information. “There will be strict rules regarding content and these will be tightly monitored,” he said.

Consumer-protection groups have long opposed the measures, saying that companies can’t be trusted to provide unbiased information. The proposal “is just a disguised way of giving pharmaceutical companies greater flexibility to provide the information they want on prescription medicines,” said Monique Goyens, director of the European Consumers’ Organization. The companies’ goal will be “to boost sales,” she said.

The draft legislation would allow companies to provide “medicinal, product-related information” that “does not go beyond the elements” of the packaging leaflet. That could include information on prices, side effects, scientific studies and anything “which presents the medicinal product in the context of the condition to be prevented or treated.” Under the legislation, the information may be published on Internet sites “on medicinal products” and in “health-related” publications, as defined by each EU member state. Member states would monitor the information, the commission said.

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