The UK’s drugs watchdog is being dragged into a legal battle over its osteoporosis ruling, which has been labelled as “unethical and short-sighted” by critics.

Drugmaker Servier is challenging the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence over draft guidance that recommends that doctors should prescribe cheaper drugs to women with early signs of osteoporosis, even though up to one in five patients cannot take the drugs, there are crippling side effects and in spite of more effective treatments being available.

According to the guidelines, sufferers would have to get 60% worse, based on a scoring system, before being offered the more expensive alternative treatment Servier’s Protelos (strontium ranelate).

Both Servier and the National Osteoporosis Society have criticised the guidance, labelling it unethical and claiming it will do nothing to reduce pain or prevent fractures.

In a bid to get the guidance changed, the organisations are taking NICE to the High Court, as part of a full judicial review, claiming lack of transparency and infringement of human rights by denying alternative treatment.

However, NICE denies any wrongdoing. Chief executive Andrew Dillon told The Times the recommendations had been “a complex set of guidance to produce”, but the Institute was “confident” NICE had acted lawfully.

The hearing is expected to last three days.