AUTH/2402/4/11 - Journalist v Bayer

Tweets about Levitra and Sativex

  • Received
    28 April 2011
  • Case number
  • Applicable Code year
  • Completed
    03 June 2011
  • Breach Clause(s)
    2, 9.1, 22.1 (x2) and 22.2 (x2)
  • Sanctions applied
    Undertaking received
  • Additional sanctions
  • Appeal
    No appeal
  • Review
    August 2011

Case Summary

A reporter with a healthcare publication provided a copy of an article from InPharm entitled 'Digital Pharma: Bayer UK's Twitter slip-up' which discussed two tweets posted by Bayer Healthcare about Levitra (vardenafil) and Sativex (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol) and the Code.

The InPharm article stated that the tweets at issue were notable compared with other UK pharma twitter accounts which signed their tweets off by medical and legal departments and were confined to disease awareness or healthcare news from the mainstream press. The author noted that some of the approximately 500 Bayer twitter account followers were clearly members of the public. The article referred to the PMCPA guidance on the use of digital media.

The complainant raised a number of questions regarding the use of twitter and the Code.

The detailed response from Bayer is given below.

The Panel noted that the Code prohibited the advertising of prescription only medicines to the public. Information could be supplied directly or indirectly to the public but such information had to be factual and presented in a balanced way. It must not raise unfounded hopes of successful treatment or be misleading with respect to the safety of the product. Statements must not be made for the purpose of encouraging members of the public to ask their doctor to prescribe a specific prescription only medicine.

The Panel noted that social media, including twitter, could be used to provide information to the public so long as the material complied with the Code. In its guidance on digital communications (issued April 2011) and in relation to twitter, the Authority had stated that 'If a company wanted to promote a medicine via twitter it would have to ensure that if the medicine was prescription only, the audience was restricted to health professionals and that the message, in addition to any link to further information, complied with the Code. In addition companies would also have to ensure that recipients had agreed to receive the information. Given these restrictions and the character limit on twitter, it is highly unlikely that the use of this medium to promote prescription only medicines would meet the requirements of the Code'.

The Panel noted that the tweets at issue were taken from the headlines of certified press releases and were posted on the same days as the respective news releases. The tweets themselveswere not certified. The twitter account was accessible by members of the public.

The Levitra tweet did not cite the product's name but referred to its qualities, indication and launch. The Sativex tweet mentioned the brand name, indication and launch. The Panel considered that each tweet was in fact a public announcement about the launch of a prescription only medicine which promoted that medicine to the public and would encourage members of the public to ask their health professionals to prescribe it. Breaches of the Code were ruled in relation to each tweet as acknowledged by Bayer. The Panel considered that high standards had not been maintained. A further breach of the Code was ruled.

The Panel was concerned that material placed on twitter had not been certified. That the original press releases were certified was insufficient in this regard. If part of a certified document was reproduced in a different format or directed to a different audience the new material should be certified separately. The Panel was extremely concerned that controls within the company were such that uncertified information about the launch of prescription only medicines had been posted on twitter. A breach of Clause 2 was ruled.