Politics slowing DTC ad reform
Net, U.S. ads are forcing a made in Canada DTC solution

How many times have you watched a television commercial telling you to: "ask your doctor about such and such medication?" What you are likely watching, is an ad from an American pharmaceutical company.

Canadian companies are not allowed to advertise prescription drugs directly to the consumer. In the twisted logic of the nation's bureaucracies, companies can advertise cigarettes, but not products to help smokers kick the habit.

The result, is that most of the prescription drug ads that Canadians see, is what spills over from U.S. magazines and TV shows. This can get confusing since some American drugs are not available in Canada, and if they are, they may have different formulations, dosages, or indicated uses.

Despite the fact that, with the Internet, Canadians now have access to tens of thousands of Web-sites with medical information, many of which carry advertising, the same restrictions on DTC advertising of prescription drugs exist today, as did fifty years ago.

Although there are many forces pushing for some form of DTC advertising -- indeed the matter has been under review by the Canadian government for more than four years -- nothing much seems to be happening on the dossier.

"The Canadian government does not seemed to have prioritized DTC ad reform," said Michel Rubin, president of the Pharmaceutical Marketing Club of Quebec. "And the result is, that consumers are going out and getting the information they need on their own."

The medical profession continues to be the big hold out in adopting a clearer consensus on DTC reform. "Although doctors realize that DTC advertising is coming, either from Canadian companies, of from American ads seeping across the border, they feel it is compromising their position as gatekeepers to the health profession," said Patrick Maclean, senior vice-president (sales and marketing) at Axcan Pharma Inc.

Maclean was involved in some extensive pharmaceutical-industry sponsored research into DTC advertising of prescription products. Extensive public surveys were carried out and focus groups were conducted with physicians, to get their opinions.

"One doctor said that he had a patient coming into see him with a brick full of information downloaded from the Internet about a product, that the physician himself was not too familiar with," said Maclean. "More profoundly, he said that that new information available to patients, is going to change the way medicine is practiced."

The thought of physicians in white coats lining up in front of the TV cameras, pillorying DTC advertising and the pharmaceutical industry makes government officials pretty nervous, including the minister of health Allan Rock.

Rock, knows more than anyone that in the Liberal Party of Canada, which sees itself as having a social conscious, it does not pay to be seen to be standing up for the big pharmaceutical companies against the medical profession. That's why many think there will be no action on DTC reform until after the next federal election.

What form these reforms could take is uncertain at this point, but looser restrictions on DTC marketing of prescription products would be a boon to the Canadian advertising industry.

In the U.S., more than $2.5 billion a year is spend on such ads. Although they spend far more per capita on advertising south-of-the-border, easing DTC restrictions would probably bring between $50 and $100 million a year to our country's advertising, broadcast and publishing industries.

That's why one of DTC's advertising's biggest proponents is Paul Jones, senior vice-president, at Rogers Media, and publisher of Macleans magazine.

Jones has created the outlines of what he calls a "made in Canada," compromise toward loosening DTC advertising regulations. The gist of his plan is that advertising to the consumer must be more balanced and information oriented, than most other product advertising.

Under the Jones plan companies advertising drugs, would be required to present the information in a way that does not overstate product benefits, nor minimize side effects. Companies would provide detailed access to more detailed information such as by providing a 1-800 number or a Web-site address, and as in the U.S., patients would be directed to ask their doctor for more details about a particular medication.

The advertising would be done in sequence, targeting physicians first, so they would not be placed in the embarrassing position of learning about new drugs from their patients, and the advertising would be in-line with Canadian medical practices.

Although he does not state it explicitly, Jones implies that such advertising would be subject to the same scrutiny that applies to drug companies advertising their products to physicians. His plan is clear, simple, and takes into account the realities of Canada's proximity to the U.S.

There is always the possibility that one of Canada's pharmaceutical companies will ignore the anti-DTC provisions and just go out and launch an advertising campaign, hoping to settle the issue in court.

After all, when the Supreme Court of Canada took a dim view of excessive commercial speech restriction, by allowing tobacco companies to advertise, the prospect of a similar ruling on DTC advertising became likely as well.

 

E-mail can be sent to Peter Diekmeyer at peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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