Drug advertising

CHOICE calls for greater scrutiny of pharmaceutical marketing, its impact on medical practice and cost pressures on the health system.
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  • Updated:11 Jul 2008


Open medicine bottle and tablets

The issue

CHOICE is concerned that some pharmaceutical companies are employing sophisticated and potentially misleading marketing strategies to increase drug sales . In particular, it is concerned that this can lead to the potential problem of ‘leakage’ (where drugs approved for one purpose is being used for another) — leading to a subsequent increase in the cost of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS).

A recent CHOICE report, Pushing Pills, found that ads in magazines for doctors regularly include images of healthy, active-looking people which, in some cases, did not realistically depict the effectiveness of the medicine. These images are intended to establish an emotive connection with the viewer. It's not clear how they help doctors make decisions about the best treatment.

The report also found that 93% of ads aimed at GPs for high blood pressure medicines were for newer medicines still under patent which were not necessarily more effective than older treatments. The recommended best first-line treatment for the condition was not advertised at all and is rarely prescribed in Australia. This is despite it being cheaper than many commonly prescribed treatments.

Doctors don't only rely on company-sponsored information sources. However, pharmaceutical company-sponsored sources, including advertisements to GPs and pharmaceutical sales representatives, greatly outweigh independent sources of information.

Medicines Australia (MA), the peak body for the pharmaceutical industry, administers a Code of Conduct (the Code) on pharmaceutical marketing. The Code applies to all pharmaceutical companies in Australia, whether they are a member of MA or not. It sets the standards for the ethical marketing and promotion of prescription pharmaceutical products in Australia. Medicines Australia will review the Code in 2008.

In 2006, when the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) approved the latest version of the Code, ACCC Chairman Graeme Samuel concluded, "it is unclear how effective [the Code] is in actually regulating drug companies' conduct". Unfortunately, the law does not allow the competition regulator to make major changes to the Code.

CHOICE is concerned that it is a conflict of interest for the Code to be administered by the industry peak body. It is also concerned that the sanctions available in the Code do little to prevent breaches.

What we want

  • A new, independent regulator for pharmaceutical marketing, to replace the industry lobbying body Medicines Australia. It is a conflict of interest for Medicines Australia to both represent the pharmaceutical industry and police pharmaceutical promotion. The new regulator should also review and improve the Code, including increasing the range and level of sanctions.
  • More independent, easily-accessible sources of information for doctors, including independent drug detailers who visit GPs to inform them about new drugs on the market.
  • A ban on pharmaceutical promotion in doctors' prescribing software.

What we’re doing

  • Our research report, Pushing Pills, highlights concerns about advertising to doctors and calls more for independent sources of information for doctors.
  • We wrote to the Minster for Health, providing her with a copy of our report, Pushing Pills, and reiterated our concerns about pharmaceutical promotion.
  • We wrote to the former Minister for Health expressing our concern about self regulation of pharmaceutical advertising. Read his response.
  • Our paper presented to the Pharmaceutical Industry Action Agenda (PIAA) conference in November 2005 argued that advertising by pharmaceutical companies which targets doctors and consumers leads to cost pressures on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) which are passed on to consumers.
  • We wrote to the Federal Treasurer and the Minister for Health calling for a ban on pharmaceutical promotion in doctors’ prescribing software.

CHOICE's complaint to Medicines Australia.

Eli Lilly recently put out a press release which marketed an erectile drug to the public. CHOICE lodged a complaint with the industry body, Medicines Australia, about the press release. Eli Lilly was given a $60,000 fine. This is a win for consumers.

The level of the fine illustrates one of the problems with the Code of Conduct. $60,000 is equivalent to fewer than 30 men buying the drug for 12 months. For Eli Lilly the coverage generated by the media release is likely to be worth the small fine. Fines like this do little to discourage breaches of the Code.

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