Doctors want pharmaceutical drug adverts banned

The Government is being urged to scrap advertising of prescription drugs directly to consumers.

Academics fear vulnerable people are being misled, but say attempts to regulate have failed in other countries.

New Zealand is one of only two countries in the world that allows pharmaceutical companies to directly advertise their products - the other is the United States, which has a very different health system.

University of Auckland's David Menkes says patients often ask for drugs they often don't need.

"People who see these ads will often get the idea they need this particular treatment and go to their doctor and say, 'I've seen this - I wonder if I need this treatment.'"

But regulation has failed in other countries, he says.

"The difficulties with unhealthy and misleading promotions appear to continue, despite best efforts to rein it in."

In an article published in Friday's edition of the New Zealand Medical Journal, Dr Menkes and Canadian health researcher Joel Lexchin say adverts are " commonly misinterpreted as trusted public health messages and are more likely to affect vulnerable subgroups of New Zealanders", particularly "those with poorer self-reported health status, older, less educated, lower income and ethnic minorities and those with unhealthy lifestyles".

"Since evidence has demonstrated that regulation has consistently failed to prevent the inappropriate promotion of prescription medicines, the conclusion is that direct-to-consumer advertising should be banned."

Previous Government reviews of direct-to-consumer advertising in 1998, 2000 and 2006 left the status quo intact, despite most submissions calling for it to be banned. In 2006 then-Health Minister Annette King said she wanted a ban, but there wasn't sufficient support in Parliament.

Studies of direct-to-consumer advertising have found more than half make potentially misleading claims, and few mentioned potential negative side-effects or the cost.

Public consultation on the draft Therapeutic Products Bill has closed, but it may soon be up for select committee discussion.

"It's not just doctors and nurses and the pharmaceutical industry - it's all of us who are in this boat," said Dr Menkes.