Official UK government press releases for Rx meds 'often overtly promotional and sensationalized' and risk breaking rules: BMJ report

The editors of the BMJ’s highly regarded Drugs and Therapeutics Bulletin (DTB) journal in the U.K. are sounding the alarm on how the British government’s press on branded drugs “lacks objectivity and is more at home in an advertising agency.”

The DTB’s editors are also voicing “serious concerns” in a letter to the heads of NHS England, NICE and MHRA alongside a scathing editorial published this week.

The letter and the editorial focus on recent media releases and statements on new prescription medicines (known as POMs in the U.K.) sent out by official, taxpayer-funded healthcare bodies in the U.K. These statements are supposed to be objective and show the risk-benefit balance of the medicines they are describing in an information-only statement.

“In [DTB’s] opinion, several of the announcements have not provided a balanced discussion of the potential harms and benefits of treatment, with some using language that might be more at home in an advertising agency,” James Cave, editor-in-chief of the DTB, writes in the editorial.

This, Cave argues, “risks flouting the strict regulations on the promotion of these drugs,” as the “language is often overtly promotional and sensationalized, while the content omits key information for patients.”

While prescription drugs can be promoted to healthcare professionals, they cannot, under British rules, be advertised to the public. The DTB points out several incidences where it thinks this has been breached. This includes statements for Novartis’ new cholesterol drug Leqvio, which, as the DTB states, was described by several government departments as a “cutting-edge new cholesterol treatment” and subsequently by NICE, the drug pricing watchdog in England, as “ground-breaking” and “a potential game-changer.”

This irked Cave because both claims come “despite there being no evidence of an effect on cardiovascular outcomes.” He also noted in the editorial that “neither announcement included any information on possible harms associated with the drug.”

It was a similar story for Bayer’s tumor-agnostic cancer drug Vitrakvi, which was also described by NICE as “game-changing” and “cutting-edge,” but the group failed to detail its possible harms, points out Cave.

These terms pop up again in a press release from U.K. drug regulator MHRA for Merck’s COVID antiviral Lagevrio, which it described as a “game-changer” and a “ground-breaking treatment.” DTB points out, again, that the same release didn’t mention possible harms nor make it clear that the drug had only been tested in people who hadn't been vaccinated against COVID-19 infection, information it believes should have been added in for essential context.

“We consider that various press releases are at risk of promoting POMs to the public, as well as doing the promotional work of pharmaceutical companies,” the DTB said in its letter to the U.K. government healthcare bodies.

And it concludes: “We suggest that NICE, MHRA and NHS England should present information about new medicines objectively, include information on harms and benefits and leave expressions such as “cutting-edge”, “game changing” and “ground-breaking” to the advertising agencies.”