The pharmaceutical industry argues that it would cost too much to be more open about the potential dangers of its products.
The UK Medicines Control Agency, which licences new drugs, is funded entirely by applications from the drug companies. It is the only drugs agency in the EC which depends on the potential licensee so completely.The drugs industry has made it clear that it is not prepared to see the licensing costs increase so that the public can have greater access to information. As it pays the piper, so it it can call the tune.
Nonetheless, Charles Medawar of Social Audit says that for every lb1 drug companies spend on providing information on drugs, they spend a further lb40 on marketing the product. Professor Bill Inman, former head of the Drug Safety Research Unit, estimates that lb1m can be added to the drug's launch costs through post marketing studies without increasing knowledge about its safety or efficacy, so poor and sales oriented are the trials.
But the Campaign for Freedom of Information, co-sponsor of the blocked Medicines Information Bill, says the costs argument is a red herring. Additional costs if the bill had gone through would have been minimal, it argues.
The dilemma highlights the problem of the dual role played by the MCA. On the one hand, it must ensure safe medicines come to the market, while on the other providing a service to the drugs companies.
The argument could be quickly resolved by the government if it was truly committed to openness, simply by underwriting the initial costs of the MCA.