Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Burns Lambasts DTC

What's the single worst event to have happened to the US pharma industry? You or I might come up with a list of a dozen or more candidates. For Bill Burns, CEO of Roche’s pharmaceuticals division, it's direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising.

Speaking at the FT Global Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology conference in London yesterday, Burns vigorously decried DTC as having led to a “lower understanding of the industry by the US population.” Citing the withdrawal of Merck’s highly-DTC’d Vioxx, he declared that “people in the US feel that the industry has let them down. There’s a lack of credibility.”

He’s right, of course (though DTC, if important, isn’t the only issue behind the industry’s image problem). And Burns isn’t first to outline DTC’s limitations: the rest of the industry recognizes, too, that this form of advertising isn’t raking in the returns it used to. Self-imposed restraint on the more overt campaigns began a couple of years ago amid political uproar over erectile dysfunction drug ads (see this and related stories in The RPM Report).

But Burns’ belligerent anti-DTC outburst must surely be one of the loudest and most explicit yet. Perhaps as a result it left a lingering whiff of higher-moral-ground hypocrisy under some noses in the room. “That might be his line here [in the UK] but it’s not what Roche executives follow [in the US],” noted an SVP from a rival firm.

Still, Roche isn’t exactly top of the DTC spending ranks: it sells mostly specialist drugs, after all. And DTC ads probably did more to batter rather than boost sales of one exception, fat-buster Xenical--are you thinking of oily-stools yet?

We know where Burns is coming from. But we, sadly, find it harder to imagine US public perception approaching where he’d like it to go: the gilded, pharma-friendly society in Roche’s native Switzerland, where “seven out of ten people are proud of the industry’s achievements.”

Not that Burns was claiming Switzerland—or Europe—had the answers, though. There, it’s the other extreme, “we can’t even talk to patients. That’s wrong, too.”

Pharma executives expect Europe’s ban on DTC to ease—possibly through a set of wider pharmaceutical legislation proposals that the European Commission was due to publish this quarter. The notion of allowing companies to pass on information directly to patients “is now more acceptable to European authorities,” claimed AstraZeneca’s CEO David Brennan at the same meeting. “It’s a question of when, not if, in my opinion,” he concluded.

But the 'what' won’t be drug-ads in bus-stops, on buses and on TV. If it’s anything at all (the EC package has been delayed indefinitely), it’ll likely be more general information on recognizing particular diseases and how to deal with them. No drug names; nothing that will whip up quite the same fury as US-style DTC.

image from flickr user lecourrier used under a creative commons license

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