Defining Drug Advertising in Taiwan

Companies have been punished for disseminating disease-awareness information.

In Taiwan, as in the rest of the world with the lone exceptions of the United States and New Zealand, pharmaceutical companies are prohibited from advertising prescription drugs directly to consumers. The main rationale for that approach is the belief that decisions on what drug to prescribe should be left solely in the hands of physicians.

But what is the proper definition of “advertising?” Over the past half year, several prominent foreign pharmaceutical companies have received stiff fines and reprimands from the Taipei City Department of Health for including pages on their websites designed to provide the public with helpful information about various diseases. These “disease awareness” pages, which have since been taken down, did not include any reference to specific products.

The Human Body: Anatomy
The Human Body: Anatomy

Nevertheless, the Department deemed the pages to be “advertising” because they included the name and logo of the manufacturer and because product-specific information could be found elsewhere on the same website.

The International Research-based Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association (IRPMA) – many of whose members are also members of AmCham Taipei and its Pharmaceuticals Committee – has sent a three-page letter to the Taiwan Food and Drug Administration (TFDA) under the Ministry of Health and Welfare, requesting clearer guidelines specifying where the line should be drawn between advertising and permissible public information.

The letter notes that in the Pharmaceutical Affairs Act, which stipulates the ban on direct-to-consumer advertising, Article 24 states that “the term ‘advertisement of medicaments’ [medicaments meaning both drugs and medical devices] as used in this Act shall refer to the act of advertising the medical efficacy of medicaments by means of communications aiming to solicit and promote the sale thereof.” IRPMA observes that the disease-awareness information in question dealt neither with the medical efficacy of any drugs nor was aimed at soliciting or promoting product sales.

Listing the name of the company on the disease-awareness page should be considered a basic demonstration of responsibility, IRPMA contends. Anonymous information would have no credibility, and the reader has a right to know the source of the material.

Many leading pharmaceutical companies have considered it part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activity to help disseminate basic healthcare-related information to the public, including well-presented background explanations about the causes, prevention, and treatment methods for certain diseases, without the intent to engage in sales promotion.

For the authorities, the main concern in connection with disease-awareness programs should be whether the information being circulated is fair and accurate. Considering the vast amount of material available on the Internet, and the difficulty members of the public face in determining what is correct and what should be ignored, it would in fact make sense to encourage reputable multinational companies to share information about diseases with the public based on their depth of understanding and research.

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