Tweets posted by Bayer Healthcare about two of its products have been found to have breached the UK pharmaceutical industry Code of Conduct, including Clause 2, which deals with promotional activities that bring discredit upon, or reduce confidence in, the industry.

The tweets also constituted the promotion of prescription-only medicines to the public, the Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority (PMCPA), which administers the Code, has ruled, in the first-ever cases of breaches of the Code involving social media. 

The Authority examined the case after being alerted by a healthcare journalist about an article from InPharm which discussed two tweets posted by Bayer Healthcare about its erectile dysfunction treatment Levitra (vardenafil) and multiple sclerosis (MS) drug Sativex (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol).

The article commented that the tweets were notable compared with other UK pharma twitter accounts, which signed their tweets off by medical and legal departments and were confined to disease awareness or healthcare news from the mainstream press. Some of the approximately 500 Bayer twitter account followers were clearly members of the public, the article added, and it referred to the guidance on the use of digital media published by the PMCPA in April this year.

The guidance states that social media, including twitter, could be used to provide information to the public provided the material complied with the Code. "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 health professionals and that the message, in addition to any link to further information, complied with the Code. In addition, companies would also have to ensure that recipients had agreed to receive the information," it says.

"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 requirements of the Code," the guidance adds.

The Code Panel noted that the tweets for Levitra and Sativex were taken from the headlines of certified press releases and were posted on the same days as the respective news releases. The tweets themselves were not certified and the twitter account was accessible by members of the public.

Therefore, the Panel decided, 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.

Panel members were also concerned that the material placed on twitter had not been certified and they were "extremely concerned" that controls within the company were such that uncertified information about the launch of prescription-only medicines had been posted on twitter, ruling this to be a breach of Clause 2 of the Code.

In addition, the Panel decided that Bayer's activities had also breached Clause 9.1 (failing to maintain high standards, Clause 22.1(advertising prescription-only medicines to the public) and Clause 22.2 (which requires information for the public to be factual and presented in a balanced way).