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Did the BBC documentary breach MHRA regulations on advertising and promoting medicines?

Readers of this blog will be aware of the complaints I have submitted to the BBC concerning its documentary Unvaccinated. What I was not aware of was that the programme likely breached regulations governing advertising of prescription medicines.

A group of scientists and clinicians (who have given me permission to reproduce this) have written to the Advertising Standards and Outreach Unit of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency arguing that the programme was 1) promoting medicinal products as defined in the MHRA Regulations applying to advertisements relating to medicinal products (“The Blue Guide, Advertising and Promotion of Medicines in the UK (Updated 2020)” and 2) failed to comply with the legal requirements for such promotion and advertising.

The full letter of complaint can be read here. It is an extremely comprehensive and carefully written explanation of exactly how the programme was in breach of the legal requirements. The summary says:

Society demands that advertising of any commodity, service or anything that may be of interest to the consumer, should be of a high standard. It should not include anything that could cause serious or widespread offence, create unrealistic expectations in the consumer or be misleading. Furthermore, UK law recognises that medicines should not be treated as an ordinary general commodity by placing specific restrictions on them. There is recognition in this approach that potentially vulnerable, sick people and their carers could be affected or even targeted by such promotional activities.

Therefore, over and above the general legislation and controls on advertising, there is additional specific legislation that applies to the advertising of medicines. All advertising and promotion of medicines, both for self-medication and to healthcare professionals where medical prescription is required, must be responsible and of the highest standard. All means and media used in the promotional marketing of medicines are subject to the legislation controlling advertising. This includes academics, journalists and broadcast media.

The television programme “Unvaccinated” broadcast by the BBC and still available on its iPlayer streaming service meets the definition of an advertisement for a medicinal product as set out in the Advertising Regulations. As such it is therefore in breach of these regulations as it is promoting specific POMs to the general public. It also fails to meet the required quality standards for the advertising of medicinal products as set out in these regulations as, on a number of counts, it fails to encourage the rational use of the products by presenting them objectively and without exaggerating their qualities, it is misleading and it also describes them as “safe”.

We would be grateful if you would take the necessary steps to ensure that these breaches of the UK legislation are dealt with appropriately.

Unfortunately, the response from the Head of Advertising (Healthcare Quality and Access) at MHRA was ludicrously dismissive:

Although the documentary cites some covid-19 vaccines by name, I consider that this is done in a factual and informative way throughout without highlighting particular qualities of a medicine (ie, without use of any product claims)

It asserted that the Programme fell outside the scope of the definition for an advertisement for a particular medicine as defined in the (MHRA) Regulations and advised the letter signatories to refer their concerns to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA):

I am therefore of the view that a programme that investigates and reports on attitudes and behaviours of members of the UK general public to taking up a public health medical intervention—ie, vaccination—to prevent illness from an infectious disease would not be within scope of the definition for an advertisement for a particular medicine as defined in the Regulations.

The full response (which does not address any of the detailed concerns raised in the letter) can be found here.

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