Companies have to tread a little carefully when it comes to advertising prescription drugs

‘If your product is good enough, you shouldn’t need to advertise it.’ So goes the popular wisdom. Advertising is relied on most heavily when there is little difference between products. 

All too often, finding the edge when it comes to persuading someone that your widget is better than someone else’s seems to involve sailing as close to the wind as possible when it comes to making sure claims are backed up by evidence. The cosmetics and consumer products industry is awash with claims based on effectively meaningless, but socially acceptable, small-sample, subjective surveys along the lines of ‘87% of women agreed that Jollop made them look younger’. 

But when it comes to advertising pharmaceuticals, companies have to tread a little more carefully. The UK Advertising Standards Agency recently upheld a claim against pharmacy chain Boots for using the term ‘clinically proven to defend against cold and flu’ to advertise its over-the-counter ‘Flu defence’ nasal spray. While the product had been subjected to controlled clinical trials, which did show it can have a small effect in helping reduce the severity of viral infections responsible for the common cold, the evidence of protective effects – particularly against flu – was insufficient.

This is all well and good – a slap on the wrist from the watchdog and nobody really gets hurt. That said, it’s unlikely to deter anyone from pushing those same boundaries again. But in the world of prescription medicines, false advertising can be much more damaging. Public health systems rely on doctors being able to make evidence-based decisions on which treatments are best for a particular patient. But there has been a steady stream of cases in which those decisions are clouded by overzealous claims from manufacturers or – worse – financial inducements to favour one product over others. 

In the latest round of cases, Novartis has put aside $390 million (£255 million) to cover a settlement with the US Department of Justice relating to it paying inducements for pharmacies. But it is Warner Chilcott’s case that stands out – not only has the company been fined, but the individuals responsible for the fraudulent schemes have been personally prosecuted. 

While firms like GlaxoSmithKline have attempted to remove incentives to overstep the mark by decoupling sales representatives’ pay from individual performance, it may take more personal penalties to have a significant impact on industry practices.