Four of the world's biggest pharmaceutical companies are proposing to launch a television station to tell the public about their drugs, amid strenuous lobbying across Europe by the industry for an end to restrictions aimed at protecting patients. Pharma TV would be a dedicated interactive digital channel funded by the industry with health news and features but, at its heart, would be detailed information from drug companies about their medicines.
A 10-minute pilot DVD, seen by the Guardian, featured a white-coated doctor discussing breast cancer and a woman patient who reassured viewers that "there are many new treatments available". Under the proposals, viewers could use their remote control to click on treatment options and read what manufacturers have to say about the latest branded breast cancer drugs.
Four companies, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Novartis and Procter & Gamble, are behind the pilot, which they are offering to the European commission as a way to give patients more information. The commission is consulting on potential changes to the regulations that ban all direct-to-consumer advertising of medicinal drugs.
The industry has been lobbying in Europe to be allowed direct access to patients. It argues that lifting restrictions would help its competitiveness and has hinted that companies may relocate to the US, where they can advertise to patients who then demand drugs from their doctors. Profits have soared there as a result.
The proposed change in the rules is being led within the commission by its trade arm, DG Enterprise, and not health, DG Sanco. It is backed by a number of influential patient groups that are themselves heavily funded by drug companies. But consumer organisations are opposed, warning that the companies will play down risk, and that their real interest lies in boosting profits.
The International Society of Drug Bulletins (ISDB) - consumer publications which analyse the benefits of drugs and draw comparisons between them - warns that the industry is not a reliable source of trustworthy information.
The US and New Zealand allow drug companies to advertise to the public; the ISDB says in both these countries this has been shown to be detrimental to health.
"Pharmaceutical companies' messages are focused on relatively few top sellers, exaggerating effects and concealing risks, confusing patients and putting pressure on doctors to prescribe drugs they would not use otherwise," it says. "Lack of comparative information in advertising means people cannot choose among several options." Johnson & Johnson presented the companies' proposals to a meeting in Brussels of the Centre for Health, Ethics and Society, a thinktank which describes itself as "developed in partnership with Johnson & Johnson". The audience comprised members of the commission, patient groups and others.
The European Patient Information Channel, as industry is calling it, could be available on the internet as well as TV, and would offer "on demand" information about drugs "to enable patients and citizens to make better decisions", said Scott Ratzan of Johnson & Johnson. It would be self-regulating, with a board of medical, pharmaceutical and patient representatives to hear complaints.
The TV pilot was welcomed by the European Patients' Forum. The forum, an umbrella group, is one of only two patient organisations admitted to the working group set up by the commission to discuss changes in the rules.
Although its executive director, Nicola Bedlington, said the pilot's "slightly sanctimonious and patronising" tone needed improvement, she and other patient representatives present approved it in principle