Bayer case puts the brakes on pharmaceutical firms' use of twitter

Social media seems to have infiltrated most areas of the modern world to differing success. Sport and music have both had incidents were users have had to be rapped on the knuckles. Now, however, it seems that even the pharmaceutical industry have angered the gods of Twitter after German firm Bayer was ticked off for tweeting about two new products.

Bayer received the warning from the Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority (PMCPA)who decided that the firm had broken laws by tweeting about two products. The two products in question are Levitra, an erectile dysfunction drug, and Sativex, a cannabis-based painkiller which is primarily used for the treatment of multiple sclerosis.

Rules relating to the tweeting of medicines are as follows: "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". Now, because some of Bayer's approximately UK and Irish followers, numbered at around 500, are members of the public this means that technically Bayer were in the wrong. This is despite Bayer claiming that it was linked to press releases for drugs which had been certified as safe by doctors.

One of the tweets in question, relating to the launch of Sativex, read: “Sativex launched in UK for the treatment of spasticity due to Multiple Sclerosis." and the problem lies here. Unless you certify and screen every person who follows you, as Bayer failed to do, then it is almost impossible to see who exactly you are tweeting to. This means that firms could be marketing prescription drugs to the wider public, the main thing the law intends to stop.

Bayer are reported to have extended their apologies for the error with a spokeswoman telling the Financial Times: "As a member of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, Bayer recognizes the industry code of practice and, as a company, is absolutely committed to compliance with all laws, regulations and good business practices."

The PMCPA felt that these sort of tweets encouraged members of the public to seek prescriptions that may not be medically safe. Despite the ruling, Bayer won't have to pay a fine or undergo any sort of concrete punishment. In truth it's has been seen as more of an oversight by the company but one which has been noted and needs not to happen again.

Medicines and drugs contain some of the most stringent laws on advertising and marketing across all sectors. Across Europe, drug companies are prohibited from advertising prescription medicines to the public via any platform or channel. In the UK there are further ethical codes that need to be adhered to which require any product information that is offered to the public must be factual and balanced.

Following the Bayer incident, specialist guidance was issued by the British pharmaceutical industry in April on the ethical use of digital communications. The guidance stated that companies wishing to use Twitter in order to promote medicines would have to ensure that the audience was restricted to purely health professionals with any information complied was within its existing code of practice.

The guidance document did note however that it was "highly unlikely" the use of tweets to promote prescription medicines would meet such requirements. So it seems that unless companies screen their followers meticulously and make sure they're only tweeting to health professionals, then any relationship between Twitter and the pharmaceutical industry could be fractured.