Health Ministry restrictions on pharmaceutical companies’ links with journalists working well

Before the rules came into effect, drug companies could offer junkets and other goodies to reportersand make exaggerated claims for their prescription drugs.

Pills (photo credit: INGIMAGE / ASAP)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE / ASAP)
Some five months after the Health Ministry’s pharmaceutical division put into effect regulations restricting pharmaceutical companies in their dealings with journalists, the head of the division, Dr. Eyal Schwartzberg said “compliance is pretty good.”
Before the rules came into effect, drug companies could offer junkets and other goodies to journalists (mostly health reporters) and make exaggerated claims about their prescription drugs, with some journalists going on trips not mentioning that they were paid for by the company, as well as enjoying other benefits, Schwartzberg said.
The onus, continued Schwartzberg, is not on the journalist, but solely on the drug companies. “Journalists should abide by the codes of journalistic ethics of the Israel Journalists Association and of the Israel Press Council,” said Schwartzberg. “But these are not official state regulations and not all journalists are members of the association or are their media members of the council.”
Drug companies that violate the regulations can lose their licenses, according to the Schwartzberg.
“Before the rules were issued, every company did what it wanted.” In the last few months, he said, state pharmacists have “warned a few companies suspected of violating the rules, but there have been no real problems so far.”
There are currently no similar regulations restricting companies that manufacture or import medical devices from the same dealings with journalists, but these are in the works, he added.
It has long been illegal for drug companies to directly advertise their registered drugs in the media (except for medical journals). However, some companies have gotten around that by financing “public service announcements” that speak of a health problem and say there is treatment, inviting the public to consult their doctors about it.
Schwartzberg, however, said he is not a censor.
“We don’t want to prevent the public from getting knowledge.
We put information in the public domain via the ministry’s website. We want knowledge, but not advertising about prescription drugs. If a journalist is sent somewhere by company, ethics require that he states this in the article and then let the public decide on its reliability.”
According to the Pharmaceutical Law’s new section #137, companies may send journalists “noncommercial, factfilled and balanced” information, without comparing their products to those of competitors or defaming them. This applies not only when the information is initiated by the company, but also if the journalist initiates contact.
The law also requires that companies indicate other existing products or treatments in addition to their own, and that a third party representing the drug company cannot send journalists information about their products.
“The information received must not be intended to encourage the general public to turn to their doctors and get the prescription drug,” according to the regulations.
“A company that invites a journalist or media institution to a professional conference or event in Israel or abroad must provide the journalist with the conditions in the regulations and brief him or her orally.”
In addition, the company is forbidden from financing medical articles or infomercials of any kind about their products.