Should EU patient information laws be relaxed?
Mar 30, 2007 - 2:07:23 AM

In 2002 the European parliament voted resoundingly against allowing drug companies to provide information about their products directly to patients. However, five years on, this decision is set to be challenged again.

A special report in this week’s BMJ looks at the arguments.

Hard lobbying by the drug industry has convinced EU health commissioners that increasing the extent to which drug companies can provide information to patients is essential to stop Europe’s drug industry falling further behind those of the United States and Japan. Drug companies also assert that this change would benefit patients.

But health campaign groups insist that drug companies cannot provide the independent information consumers need.

The commission will set out its final position next month, but speculation is already rife that it is likely to suggest changes to legislation that would jeopardise the current ban on direct to consumer advertising for prescription drugs.

Campaigners are particularly concerned that if the commission decides it needs to relax the laws then direct to consumer advertising would be introduced almost as a side effect.

Despite assurances that blatant advertising is not the intention, Barbara Mintzes of the University of British Columbia disagrees, saying that any change in the law to allow industry to provide information could produce undesirable effects – even if the advertising ban remains in place.

Rita Kessler of the campaign group AIM agrees. She believes that the current proposals would result in poor quality information and questions the need for more health information. She suggests that the commission should instead endorse an EU logo mark that would be awarded to high quality information sources and act as a quality stamp to help patients identify reliable, evidence based advice.

In anticipation of the commission’s final report in April, five international health associations have joined forces to step up their opposition campaign. They assert that “relevant, comparative and appropriate information on health issues cannot be provided by drug companies,” because in a competitive marketplace, dug companies must present their own products in a more favourable light than other preventive or therapeutic options.

However, the quick turnaround of MEPs means that few of the original objectors from 2002 remain in office – and that could mean a completely different outcome when patient information laws are debated again.

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