Drug makers face fresh curbs on misleading marketing

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Drug manufacturers are facing a clampdown on their marketing practices to prevent misleading claims being made for new medicines.

The UK medicines regulator is today introducing a regime to vet the marketing materials used by pharmaceutical companies before they are sent out. The move comes as the regulator publishes a string of judgements against drug companies that have transgressed existing rules.

In the worst case, a gum disease treatment was advertised with "win an iPod'' special offer. The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, the MHRA, is investigating further cases that could lead to prosecution. Drug firms that make false claims in material for doctors or offer lavish freebies when marketing their products face unlimited fines, and individuals can be imprisoned for up to two years.

The MHRA is today giving details of a system for pre-vetting marketing materials for all innovative drugs, a regime that could last for the first six months after a drug is launched or longer if it identifies causes for concern.

Jeremy Mean, policy group manager at the MHRA, said: "It is in the very early stages of promotion of a new active substance that we have got to get the messages absolutely right. Materials on prescription-only medicines sent to healthcare professionals might be where they get their first knowledge of a new drug.''

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry is expected to announce this month that it will begin monitoring the advertising of prescription medicines to doctors and tighten up its own sanctions.

The pharmaceutical industry has been hit by a string of safety scares and criticism of aggressive marketing practices. Drug companies typically spend twice as much on sales and marketing as they do on research and development.

The MHRA will reveal today that it has upheld a complaint on the advertising of a pill to tackle gum disease, manufactured by the quoted firm Alliance Pharmaceuticals. A promotion in the trade magazine Dentistry included a prize draw to win an iPod Mini. The MHRA said: "The prize offered was not relevant to the practice of medicine and was not inexpensive as required under UK legislation ... Alliance confirmed that they did not authorise the promotional offer and that it was instigated by the magazine without their approval.''

The magazine has been ordered to print a retraction.