Women and Health Protection wins intervener status in DTCA Charter Challenge case

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Women and Health Protection (WHP), as part of a coalition of nine national organizations, has been granted intervener status (party standing) in the Charter Challenge case of CanWest Mediaworks against the federal government on the issue of direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA). In December 2005, CanWest Mediaworks, Canada’s largest and most diversified media company, representing over 65 television, radio, newspaper and online brands across Canada filed a lawsuit against the federal government, charging that Canada’s prohibition of direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA) of prescription drugs is an unjustified infringement of the company’s freedom of expression, as guaranteed under Section 2(b) of Canada’s Charter of Rights. The case is being heard in the Ontario Superior Court, and Health Canada is responsible for defending the current law against DTCA.

Having intervener status will allow the coalition to share important evidence on at least two critical areas of concern: the impact of DTCA on rising drug costs – and hence the survival of our Medicare system – and its effects on women. As WHP has pointed out, women, and young women in particular, are increasingly the target of pharmaceutical advertising campaigns. However, in many cases there is little or no understanding of the longer term risks of medications that are increasingly hyped as cure-alls for some of the natural processes of women’s bodies. Improper use of drugs is sometimes overtly promoted in advertising messages as well, as was the case with the recent advertising campaign for Xenical, a prescription drug for obesity which last year was marketed widely to Canadian women suggesting use for mild (cosmetic) weight loss.

With a range of side-effects including increased, oily or fatty bowel movements, urgent need and/or inability to control bowel movement, gas with discharge, stomach pain and irregular menstrual periods, Xenical is certainly not appropriate for wide use amongst healthy women who wish to lose a few pounds – which is precisely what the Xenical ads suggest. The illegal advertisements appeared in many of Canada’s national and regional newspapers, including the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, and in Canadian magazines, such as Reader’s Digest, Chatelaine, Maclean’s, on television, including CBC TV, and in French and English on billboards in bus shelters, buses, subway cars and stations across Canada.

With women the frequent targets of prescription drug advertising campaigns, fear mongering is another common tactic employed to promote worry and doubt in viewers’ minds. A recent campaign promoting the use of anti-cholesterol drugs (statins), using a bull poised to charge at a red sheet being hung by a woman alone in her back yard, manages to "crystalize images of assault, vulnerability, and violence", notes York University professor Harriet Rosenberg, currently working on a discussion paper on women and statins for WHP.

Intervener Status: Long Term Potential

CanWest Mediaworks’ Charter challenge will be heard some time in 2007. In the bigger picture, however, the Coalition’s achievement holds even greater potential in that it could set a precedent in how and to whom intervener status is awarded in future cases.

WHP is a coalition of community groups, researchers, journalists and activists concerned about the safety of pharmaceutical drugs. The group keeps a close watch over ongoing changes in the federal health protection legislation and examines the impact of those changes on women's health. Their documents make clear recommendations to the government for Canadian legislation that truly provides "health protection".

Other Coalition members in the CanWest Charter Challenge case are: the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Canadian Health Coalition, the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, the Society for Diabetic Rights, the Medical Reform Group and Terence Young.

Why prohibit direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs?

  • Prescription drugs are not like other consumer goods. Even when used properly, they can cause serious harmful effects, sometimes even death.
  • Advertising does not provide the impartial, objective information consumers need to make informed health choices. Its main goal is to increase product sales.
  • A sick person is not like someone shopping for a new perfume or car. People are vulnerable when they are ill and often have to make difficult treatment choices.
  • Companies almost always advertise their newest products to gain market share and recoup development costs. Many new drugs are no safer or more effective than older drugs, but are costlier. Often little is known about rare or long-term risks.
  • Advertising of medicines promotes unnecessary medicalisation of normal life. Drug treatment for baldness, restless legs, shyness, toenail fungus, pre-menstrual syndrome, or occasional sexual problems may do more harm than good.
  • Studies show that the doctors who rely more on information from drug promotion prescribe less appropriately. Similarly, promotion aimed at the public is likely to lead towards less appropriate medicine use.
  • Prescription drug advertising drives up health care costs.

From Women and Health Protection’s (WHP) Citizen’s Guide to CanWest’s Charter Challenge on prescription drug advertising. The Citizen’s Guide can be found on the WHP website at: http://www.whp-apsf.ca/pdf/charter_challenge_en.pdf