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'Severe violations' of advertising codes over weight loss jabs

UK drug companies are violating marketing codes at least once a week, say academics

Weight loss drugs are consistently being advertised irresponsibly with 'serious consequences' for patient health, new research has found.

Data analysis released by academics at the University of Bath and Lund University in Sweden on Friday (June 21) has revealed a “failing system of drug company self-regulation”.

The study found that the code violations are “pervasive”, with one-fifth of cases labelled “severe”.

The analysis looked at “more than 1,100 cases” between 2004 and 2021 where the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry’s (ABPI) code of practice was breached. Of these cases, 159 companies were involved.

Cases of misconduct are handled by the Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority (PMCPA), the drug industry’s self-regulatory body.

The study notes that an average of “1.2 cases per week” involved companies breaching their own code of conduct.

Read more: RPS ‘clearly at odds' with GPhC over P-med self-selection

Out of the cases ruled to be in breach of the code of conduct, 20% were given a Clause 2 ruling. Such a ruling is reserved by the PMCPA for instances where the misconduct “tarnishes the industry's reputation” and “diminishes the public’s confidence in its practices”.

The survey also notes that cases requiring Clause 2 rulings “have become more frequent”, rising from an average of 11 per year between 2004 and 2018 to 30 cases in 2020.

The “majority” of companies were “repeat offenders”, with 20 companies (12.6%) sanctioned in half or more of the 18 years that the study spans.

“Serious consequences for patient health”

Reader at the University of Bath Dr Piotr Ozieranski that the culture of repeat offending “poses serious consequences for patient health”.

Ozieranski also noted that “huge delays in complaint processing” are exacerbating the problem. The study found that the PMCPA’s case processing times have risen from an average of three months in 2004 to “seven” and “almost nine” months in some instances in 2020 and 2021.

Senior lecturer at Lund University Shai Mulinari that their findings “underscore the urgent need for stricter enforcement and quicker resolution of complaints to ensure the safety and well-being of patients.”

Read more: Weight loss: Superdrug expands online Mounjaro service to high street

Mulinari added that “allowing unethical drug promotion to carry on for extended periods” puts patients’ health “in jeopardy”.

“Disguised funding” and “heavily biased training”

The study says Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk is a “repeat offender”.

Between 2019 and 2023, Wegovy manufacturers Novo Nordisk were adjudicated by the PMCPA ten times for “inappropriate marketing of its weight-loss drug Saxenda (liraglutide)”.

Read more: Wegovy: 'I really hope the NHS crack down on this. I am forever traumatised by what happened'

They were given a two-year membership suspension by the ABPI in 2023, the “harshest penalty ever levied on a drug company”.

The investigation into Norvo Nordisk found that they had used “disguised funding” and “heavily biased training of healthcare professionals” in order to downplay the side-effects of their drug.

Ozieranski called for regulators to take a “proactive and adversarial stance” in future, and to actively monitor company misconduct rather than “relying mainly on complaints from well-informed insiders”.

Novo Nordisk’s “weight-loss” drugs are popular, with $40bn in sales expected by the company for 2024.

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