There is another row over the pharmaceutical industry and EU reforms, in today’s Guardian. With drug companies being faced with declining sales, they seem to be making headway with their plans to enlist the patients themselves, their greatest allies, in the struggle to make more money. After drug companies were given permission to advertise their prescription medicines on TV, radio, magazines and newspapers in the U.S., their sales soared. Now they want to be able to do the same in the UK and are strongly challenging the current ban on direct consumer advertising in the EU. In 2002, an attempt was made to persuade the European Parliament to allow drug companies to launch “disease awareness campaigns” which were basically vehicles to instil fear in the public, make them think they were sick when they actually weren’t in the hope it would lead to an increase in demand for new and different drugs from doctors. In the same year Merck Sharp and Dohme paid for a 30 pages supplement distributed with the New Statesman, which included full page adverts in favour of changing advertising rules. One was signed by 15 European patient groups coordinated by Rodney Elgie, president of the mental health organisation, GAMIAN. Elgie rejected obvious criticism that patients’ groups would be biased in favour of the drug companies as they accept vast percentages of their working costs from those drug companies.
A new survey has been compiled by Consumers International claiming “a shocking lack of publicly available information about the 60 billion dollars spent annually by the industry on drug promotion”. The drug companies refuse to call it advertising, merely the giving of information. Surely that shouldn’t cost 60 billion dollars a year! The report examines the real marketing practises of 20 of the world’s biggest drug companies. It alleges that the drugs companies are promoting their products through patient groups, students and internet chatrooms to bypass the ban on advertising to the public. Having obligations to shareholders, pharmaceutical manufacturers have to promote their own drugs rather than other preventative or treatment options. As a result, they are utterly incapable of providing accurate information about the safety and efficacy of their drugs. They offer information about modern lifestyle illnesses to encourage people to ask their doctors for medicines. Many companies have been implicated in anti competitive strategies and regularly offer incentives to doctors to prescribe and promote certain drugs. Companies are targeting patient groups more and more as a means to get their products to the public. This “nice and friendly” marketing is often disguised as corporate social responsibility manipulating the consumer into developing a certain trust in these companies. The drug companies are already spending vast amounts of money on somewhat underhand publicity for their products, so the European Commission’s recent decision to look at the ruling on advertising again, will mean the drugs industry could probably have free rein to “give information” or whatever other euphemism they can come up with to make even more billions by making us all sicker before making us better again.