Despite moves by pharmaceutical industry regulators both here and abroad to clarify rules around use of social media, pharma companies remain wary of delving into the social networking site to promote their brand/campaigns. This reticence will not be helped by the announcement today that Bayer UK have become the first pharma company to breach the UK ABPI Code of Practice for the Pharmaceutical Industry through their use of Twitter.

@BayerUKIreland have tweeted just 93 times since Jan 25th 2010, posting news bites and links to PR materials. In March the company posted the controversial tweet: “First & only melt-in-the-mouth erectile dysfunction treatment launched by Bayer today” and linked to a UK press release announcing the launch of a new formulation of their ED drug, Levitra. This wasn’t the first time the company posted product-specific comments. Last year they tweeted about a product launch saying: “Sativex® launched in UK for the treatment of spasticity due to Multiple Sclerosis.”

When questioned by in March, Bayer UK’s PR and Media Relations Manager, Andrea Postles said that “All news releases are ABPI Code-approved before they are issued. Social media users only see our tweets if they have already elected to be ‘followers’.” However this wasn’t the case as their Twitter account was open to the public and regardless of their 521 followers (at the time); their tweets were publicly displayed and indexed by search engines.

Following online debate one anonymous ‘reporter from a healthcare publication’ took a complaint to the PMCPA about the promotional activity. Following a panel review of the case, the PMCPA reported that although the Levitra tweet did not cite the product’s name it “referred to its qualities, indication and launch“. Furthermore they said: “The Sativex tweet mentioned the brand name, indication and launch”.

The PMCPA ruled that the tweets breached the Code of Practice stating 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”.

The review panel noted that although the tweets referenced press releases which were approved, they were not approved for that medium as seperate certification for use on Twitter wasn’t in place and the Bayer Twitter feed was publicly accessible.

The PMPCPA released social media guidelines for the pharmaceutical industry in April which underscored that the promotion of medicines to healthcare professionals will be viewed in the same way as regards the Code regardless of whether the communication takes place at a face-to-face meeting or on a social networking site. In specific reference to the use of Twitter to directly promote a prescription only medicine they were clear 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 healthcare professionals and that the message, in addition to any link to further information, complied with the code. 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 requirement of the Code.”

In relation to pharmaceutical companies use of social media to provide information to the public, this activity was deemed appropriate as long as the activity complies with the Code. In particular as it relates to ‘factual and balanced information’, ‘reference information appropriate to support the use of medicines and enhance patient welfare’.

[Thanks to @dominic_tyler tweets for drawing my attention to this.]