Saturday, August 23, 2008

Drug Companies Spend Millions on Direct Advertising

Following on from the attack by NICE on the drug industry in The Observer, The Guardian reveals today that the drug industry plows millions into persuading medical professionals to use their products. According to the report:

Drug companies are spending millions of pounds every year on all-expenses-paid trips to conferences around the world for doctors and other hospital staff, in what critics say is a massive marketing exercise dressed up as medical education.

The Guardian can reveal the scale of pharmaceutical company sponsorship following an examination of the registers of gifts and donations to doctors that all hospitals are required to keep. They show considerable largesse - from drug companies regularly picking up hefty bills for travel to international conferences in Europe, Asia and America, to specialist nurses' salaries, and weekly sandwich lunches for hospital staff training sessions.

Examples of the firms' hospitality include:

· Astra Zeneca paid £2,500 for a doctor at the Royal Bournemouth trust and £1,500 for a doctor at Sheffield teaching hospital to attend a cancer conference in Texas

· Sanofi-Aventis, the world's fourth biggest pharmaceutical company, paid for doctors at the Countess of Chester trust to go to conferences in Cape Town, New Orleans and Barcelona. At Gateshead trust, their reps gave a breakfast for 30 staff "to discuss drugs for the treatment of breast cancer". The trust's register records that "the donor was seeking to secure business".

· Roche spent £2,000 for an oncology consultant at Addenbrooke's hospital in Cambridge to go to a conference in May last year.

· GSK, the biggest British pharmaceutical company, paid £1,200 for a consultant at Sheffield teaching hospital to attend the 11th international congress of Parkinson's disease and movement disorders in Turkey last June.

· Companies have also been taking hospital staff to top football and rugby matches. Carillion, a public sector construction firm, spent £180 taking a senior manager at Milton Keynes trust to lunch and then a rugby match at Twickenham last August.

Fortunately, drug companies cannot advertise direct to the patient......yet. Only last year, drug companies and so-called 'patient groups' (funded by drugs companies funnily enough) lobbied the European parliament to relax the regulations on direct advertising. Should these patient groups be successful in battering NICE into submission, there is no doubt that the pressure would increase to allow the drug companies to advertise direct to the patient - a very dangerous prospect indeed when one considers the issues surrounding drugs such as Vioxx.

These are dangerous times in the medical world. Drug companies are scared of a decline in profits that will inevitably follow the expiration of their lucrative patents. This fear will drive them to ever ambitious attempts to secure their bottom line and patient groups are one of their biggest weapons. NICE must be allowed to carry out its work, no matter how hard it is for some patients to accept, or else we could find ourselves in a dangerous world where drugs are rushed to the market place after insufficient testing - leading to many more cases like Vioxx. NICE does a very difficult job, but it deserves everyone's support.