U.S.-style TV drug ads a big mistake -Roche exec

LONDON, Dec 2 (Reuters) - U.S.-style direct advertising to consumers has been a big mistake for the global drug industry, undermining the reputation of the sector in the eyes of patients, according to a top executive at Roche.

“Direct-to-consumer promotion was the single worst decision for the industry,” William Burns, the Swiss group’s head of pharmaceuticals, told an FT conference in London on Tuesday.

“When industry says we’re spending all the money on R&D but actually it’s spending it on TV advertising to preserve margins, it doesn’t get much credibility,” he added.

Direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising of prescription drugs is only permitted in the United States and New Zealand.

It has been embraced enthusiastically by makers of drugs used in primary care, but the practice has been attacked by some consumer groups, especially in the wake of the 2004 withdrawal of Merck & Co's MRK.N heavily promoted painkiller Vioxx.

Angus Russell, chief executive of Britain's Shire SHP.L, which, like Roche, focuses on specialty rather than primary-care medicines, also condemned DTC.

A total of $4.2 billion was spent on DTC drug ads in the U.S. in 2005, up 330 percent from 1996, according to a study last year in the New England Journal of Medicine.

A worsening economic climate and a growing threat from generic versions of many of today’s blockbuster medicines means the economics of spending big bucks on advertising drugs with only marginal benefits over rivals could be changing anyway.

“The marginally-different-and-market-it-like-hell model is over,” Burns said.

But while the U.S. had gone overboard in allowing drugmakers to promote direct to patients, Europe was too restrictive, he added.

Companies have long campaigned against rules that prevent them from talking directly to consumers in Europe, despite a wealth of often unreliable information being available on the Internet.

The European Commission is drawing up legislation that would allow a degree of information to be disseminated about medicines by their makers, though advertising pharmaceuticals would remained banned.

The package of legislation was initially expected to be unveiled by the European Union’s executive arm last week but has been delayed.

“You’ve got the two extremes on the planet, where we are given access to the public in America, which is too much, and in Europe we’re not given access to information,” Burns said. (Editing by Will Waterman)