Opinion: Proposed ads for Viagra show regulations’ flaws

If everything goes according to plan, Viagra will soon be advertised directly to consumers across Europe.

If everything goes according to plan, Viagra will soon be

advertised directly to consumers across Europe.



Of course, the ads produced by the yet-to-be-appointed agency won’t

actually mention Viagra. That would be illegal under EU rules - the

promotion of prescription-only drugs is confined to the medical

press.



Instead, the campaign will have to rely on ’nudge-nudge’ tactics by

suggesting that anybody with an impotency problem should seek medical

advice. Doubtless, the blue Pfizer logo will leave nobody uncertain as

to what remedy they should demand once in the surgery.



Not only is this so-called ’symptom’ advertising absurd, it’s insulting

to ad-literate consumers who fully understand the ’we know that you

know’ message. Nor is it any longer tenable now that the internet has

opened up the British Medical Journal - and all its advertising - to

anybody who cares to log on.



So why has the issue become such a dog’s dinner? Partly because a tardy

EU is taking so long to contemporise the regulations that control

pharmaceutical advertising, and partly because of the conflicting

signals coming from the UK Government.



On one hand, ministers seem intent on driving the sales of branded drugs

through its NHS helpline. On the other, they want to raise the number of

prescriptions for generic drugs from 65 to 80 per cent during the next

three years.



Nor is there much hope for any early clarification of the EU regulations

on pharmaceutical advertising. They took seven years to be implemented

from the first draft in 1988 and nobody is expecting a further review

for at least three years.



Symptom advertising threatens to put demands on the NHS for expensive

’lifestyle’ drugs that it cannot possibly fulfil. But the rules cannot

be relaxed until the Government does two things.



First, it will have to introduce a proper co-payment system under which

patients pay a proportion of the cost dependent on their clinical

need.



Second, it must consider introducing a new category of drugs that can be

prescribed by a pharmacist. Painful it may be - but only in the pocket.



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