Thursday, August 18, 2011

Tweeting Around Europe's DTC Ban: Bayer Named and Shamed

A press release about a new drug launch is ok; a tweet isn't.

That appears to be the conclusion of a months-long saga over drug firms' -- in particular Bayer UK's -- use of social media to allegedly 'promote' its drugs in Europe, where DTC advertising remains a no-no.

Never mind that tweets don't respect geography. Bayer will be named and shamed in various medical journals (The Nursing Standard, 17 Aug; BMJ and The Pharmaceutical Journal, 20 Aug.) for tweeting about new UK drug launches earlier this year, according to the PMCPA, which administers the UK drug industry's (the ABPI's) Code of Practice.

The German conglomerate in March tweeted on the launch of "first and only melt-in-the-mouth erectile dysfunction treatment" (Levitra), following a similarly promotional tweet the year before about multiple sclerosis drug Sativex, according to the Digital Pharma blog.

The company claimed at the time that it was issuing only 'factual and non-promotional' information, linked to approved press releases. It also said at the time that guidance from the PMCPA on the use of social media was 'far from clear'.

The guidance has been updated to include what amounts to a ban on tweeting about prescription medicines, however. But Bayer would not comment specifically on whether it now found the guidelines clearer, saying only that "as a member of the ABPI, Bayer recognises the industry Code of Practice and, as a company, is absolutely committed to compliance with all laws, regulations and good business practices."

Of course it is. And that -- could we call it contrition? -- is the effect that the watchdogs wanted this naming game to achieve. Any companies perceived as attempting to circumvent Europe's DTC ban via social media networks like Twitter had better think again, or risk being brandished as, per the ABPI code, 'bringing discredit upon' the pharmaceutical industry.

This case will almost certainly fuel the ongoing debate around a stalled piece of EU legislation attempting to harmonize and update the region's policy on information to patients (what's allowed, what isn't).

Meantime, notwithstanding the name-and-shame ads, we bet that the @bayerukireland twitter account may have picked up a few more followers-- if only to keep tabs on them. Whatever its intention, Bayer did effectively circumvent the DTC ban in the case of Levitra: plenty of non-medical professionals know what's available as melt-in-the-mouth.

image by flickrer fanie used under creative commons

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