An alliance of nine groups representing UK consumers, patients and medical professionals has urged the European Commission to ditch plans to change the rules on the information that drug companies can provide to patients.

Spearheaded by consumer lobbyist Which?, the group has sent a letter to the Commission asking it to reconsider its plans to relax the current ban on marketing prescription drugs to the public.

It argues the move would allow pharmaceutical companies to push information about their branded drugs directly to consumers through television, radio, printed media and other channels.

It also argues that pharmaceutical companies already have a number of ways in which to provide information to patients, such as websites, disease awareness campaigns, patient information leaflets in medicine packs, and advertising non-prescription medicines.

The group is concerned that Direct to Consumer Information (DTCI) could lead to patients demanding more expensive branded drugs from their GP.

A Which? survey of 200 GPs in 2007 found that almost a third said that patient requests help them decide whether to prescribe a new drug. Therefore, the new legislation could “significantly” increase the NHS drugs bill.

Pete Moorey, public affairs manager at Which? said: “We need to draw a clear line between information and advertising, otherwise DTCI will be like letting advertising in through the back door.

“We don’t want to end up in the same boat as the US, where people demand specific branded drugs from their doctor when cheaper equally effective generic drugs are available.

“The huge and unnecessary increase in cost that this could bring would divert much needed funds away from other areas of the NHS.”

The group behind the letter also comprises the British Medical Association, Family Planning Association, Picker Institute Europe, British Pharmacological Society, Mind, Royal College of Physicians, Royal College of Nurses and Diabetes UK.

It says that while it fully supports the drive for more and better information for patients about health, disease, treatments and medicines, it’s “very concerned” that the proposals outlined in the directorate general, enterprise, consultation in February 2008 may only serve to exacerbate the problems and issues that they have been designed to address.

“In the absence of a consensus on the distinction between information and advertising, we believe that these proposals will effectively undermine the ban on direct to consumer advertising,” it says.

In the US, where the ban on direct to consumer advertising (DTCA) was lifted in 1997, 80% of the $279 billion spent on prescription drugs each year is on brand-name products. Medicines are heavily promoted on television, through websites and internet campaigns.