TCS Daily

The Road to Medical Serfdom

By Jan Zamboch - November 18, 2004 12:00 AM

The European Union's ban on direct information to patients about prescription medicines has come under fire in the public debate recently and with good reason. The ban violates the freedom of expression, hurts patients, and appears to be upheld for one single reason: to protect the turfs of a small group of government bureaucrats and health administrators afraid of informed and responsible patients.

I am well aware of all the "safety" arguments for the ban, but I am also well aware of dozens of other dangers confronting us every day: gas stoves, cars, knives, electrical devices, etc. People who are allowed to use a gas stove in a block of flats with many inhabitants are not allowed to buy sleeping pills they need without anyone else's approval. Allegedly on safety grounds. What is more, the same people who in certain EU countries are allowed to drive their cars after drinking some beers are considered to be unable to deal with advertisements concerning prescription medicines. We need to ask what is behind this absurdity.

Despite all the statements presented in the preamble of the EU Directive, there is only one reason for the ban on direct-to-consumer-advertising of Rx medicines. If you consider that over-the-counter drugs may be advertised, and if you have some experience in this field, you might think that the idea is to save costs in public health systems. However, pursuant to the Treaty establishing the EU this reasoning would not authorize the European Parliament and the Council to introduce such a ban. So they decided to hide behind other reasons. First in the preamble they say that disparities in measures adopted in various countries concerning advertising of medicinal products are likely to have an impact on the functioning of the internal market. This obviously is not true. Nevertheless, if we accept the idea, why not decide to unify the rules instead of issuing a ban? Then we are to believe that advertising to the general public could affect public health, but only if it is "excessive and ill-considered". We can see that legislators themselves are not sure of the influence of advertisement on the "public health", which is, by the way, another useful term of no meaning.

Public health has never been observed, probably due to the fact that the society consists of individuals. Various individuals will be differently influenced by the advertisement, but concerning Rx medicines, there is always a doctor to prescribe the medicine. Should "public health" be jeopardized by advertising, I would presume OTC advertisement should also be banned. Do not forget that many drugs available as OTCs, e.g. paracetamole, are quite toxic compared to many Rx medicines. This clearly reveals that there are no "public health" considerations behind the ban and so there is no authority for the EU bodies to impose such a ban.

However, these technical and legal arguments for lifting the ban on advertisement of Rx medicines are in fact only part of the issue. Banning advertisements is a serious violation of freedom of expression. Governments should not punish people for the peaceful use of their own property. If I decide to sell space in my newspaper for advertisement I must be allowed to do so in free society. If the advertisement misleading, let the cheated consumer seek his rights in the courts.

Some people say that freedom is of no value without health. They may be right, but they must consider that only in a system of complete freedom can one do his best to be healthy. Recent European systems force people to pay for services they do not want, and to pay for services provided to other people with risky behaviors. The also prevent people from seeking information and judging it for themselves. It seems that the EU states simply want their inhabitants to live as serfs who will humbly pay and never ask. This system means not only unkind doctors or enormously long waiting terms for surgery, but it often means complete refusal to treat rare, fatal but curable diseases.

The author is a Czech lawyer with a degree in pharmacy.


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