Novartis advertising probe intensifies with Tokyo office raid

Prosecutors came knocking at Novartis' ($NVS) Tokyo offices, stepping up their probe of the Swiss drugmaker's Diovan advertising. The Japanese authorities raided the local unit as part of an investigation into allegations that Diovan data was manipulated, and advertising for the blood pressure drug relied on that rigged data.

Japan's health ministry filed a criminal complaint against Novartis KK last month, citing the country's laws on truth in advertising. Prosecutors said that ads citing data from now-disputed Diovan studies could put Novartis on the wrong side of that law.

Exaggerated advertising of drugs in Japan can be punished by up to two years in prison, a fine of up to ¥2 million (about $19,600) or both.

The data scandal has been dragging on for months, since evidence surfaced that a former Novartis employee had been involved in reporting the stroke-prevention data--and did not disclose his affiliation with the drugmaker. Tokyo's Jikei University School of Medicine retracted its Diovan research, published in The Lancet, after determining that some of the data was fabricated. Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine also said its Diovan data was incomplete.

Japanese authorities warned as early as September that Novartis could face criminal penalties for its Diovan promotions. The advertising in question was based on studies suggesting that Diovan (valsartan) could prevent strokes and angina.

Japanese media has reported that Novartis cited the questionable data, supporting Diovan as a preventive tool, about 700 times in ads since 2006.

If any employees are personally fined, it won't be the first time local workers have suffered financially from the scandal. In October, Novartis Pharma chief David Epstein actually cut Japanese executives' pay until the data probe is resolved. Sales of Diovan have declined since the scandal broke, Epstein said during the Oct. 3 press conference, but Novartis is more worried about the fallout's effects on its global reputation.

- see the story from Agence France Presse

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