Complaints to regulators about the advertising of medicines rose by more than 40% in the 12 months to August 2006 and the number of advertisements subsequently withdrawn or amended increased by about 30%.

Companies agreed to publish “corrective statements” in eight cases, compared to four the previous year. These are issued when there is concern that the misleading advertising poses a serious risk to public health.

The figures are included in the first annual report published by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency’s (MRHA) advertising standards unit. The production of annual reports by the unit was one of the recommendations to emerge from the Commons Health Select Committee’s high-profile report on the pharmaceutical industry in 2005.

Although the figures represent a big increase on last year, they are in line with those for 2003-04 when the unit received 157 complaints.102 advertisements were withdrawn or amended and nine corrective statements were published.

In the year to September the unit also found 11 potentially misleading advertisements through its own monitoring of journals and magazines for healthcare professionals and the public. They were all withdrawn and in two cases corrections were published.

Dr Jane Raine, director of vigilance and risk management at the MHRA, said: “Advertising is an important means of communications and for medicines it can provide useful information to the public and healthcare professionals about available treatments and their potential benefits. It is the aim of the MHRA to safeguard public health by ensuring that medicines advertising adheres to high standards through providing clear guidance, open procedures, rapid action, effective sanctions and transparent outcomes.”

The agency uses the report to urge pharmaceutical companies to make greater use of its prior vetting service. Advertising for some 44 new products was vetted by the unit in the 12 months to September, compared to an average of 15 in previous years.

The report warns that a key issue causing concern over the last 12 months has been the safety claims made for products. It warns: “Companies should take great care to ensure that advertising does not suggest that the comparative safety profile of their products means that there is less need for safety checks and monitoring of patient response.”