The Council of Medical Colleges wants to stop the advertisement of prescription medicines. Photo / 123RF
Medical experts are urging the Government to “take on” big pharmaceutical companies and stop the advertising of prescription medicines to the public, which they say is wasting the time of doctors and Kiwis needing help.
Prescription medicine advertising presents a “biased, overly optimistic picture of advertised medicines and prompts patients to request treatments they do not need” according to an open letter from the Council of Medical Colleges in New Zealand (CMC).
The letter calls on Health Minister Ayesha Verrall to ban direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription medicines (DTCA-PM).
CMC chair Dr Samantha Murton said the health ministry needs to put the safety of patients ahead of pharmaceutical advertising.
“For decades, doctors have been concerned that direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription medicines presents a biased, overly optimistic picture of advertised medicines and prompts patients to request treatments they do not need,” Murton said.
New Zealand and the United States are the only two countries that allow unrestricted advertising of branded prescription medication.
The signatories to the open letter include Sir Ashley Bloomfield, former PM Helen Clark, Prof Papaarangi Reid, Rob Campbell, Consumer NZ, all 17 New Zealand medical colleges, and others.
Murton said that banning DTCA-PM could free up overstretched medical professionals by 48,000 hours a year, hours that are currently wasted dealing with queries that come up only because of the advertising.
“That would be much better spent helping sick Kiwis get better,” Murton said.
Studies on prescription medicine advertising on the health of New Zealanders indicate the ads are commonly misinterpreted as public health messages, rather than advertising, a New Zealand Medical Journal report said.
The advertisements are also more likely to affect vulnerable subgroups who are “at-risk”, such as with poorer health status, older, less educated, lower income and ethnic minorities.
A 2019 Consumer NZ survey found 57 per cent of Kiwis supported a ban on medicine advertising and just 15 per cent thought drug advertising should continue.
The open letter comes as a new Therapeutic Products Bill is being introduced to replace the country’s outdated Medicines Act.
The draft Bill is currently out for consultation and includes an effort to solicit public opinion about banning or regulating DTCA-PM.
The document proposes not to ban DTCA but make it subject to regulation by an independent authority, which is yet to be decided.
“The select committee report on the Therapeutic Products Bill does not reflect the consensus view across doctors, across health, across academia and consumers – New Zealand doesn’t need to better regulate DTCA-PM, we need to ban it,” Murton said.
The Therapeutic Products Bill is expected to be read in Parliament in the upcoming week.
“The Council of Medical Colleges has absolutely no confidence that attempted central regulation, up against the enormous resources of the pharmaceutical industry, will be able to provide effective and timely control.”
Currently, anyone can file a complaint about an advertisement with Medsafe, but neither Medsafe nor the Commerce Commission proactively monitor DTCA.
Over the past three decades, the New Zealand government has undertaken a number of reviews of DTCA.
Labour health ministers and opposition spokespeople have repeatedly committed to addressing the harms DTCA-PM causes at the next opportunity to rectify the Medicines Act 1981.
In 2004, former health minister Dame Annette King made moves to ban DTCA-PM altogether but the idea fell by the wayside.
In 2020, Opposition spokesperson for health, Dr Shane Reti called for DTCA-PM to be banned.
“We encourage anyone who wishes to add their support to do so by signing their name,” Murton said.