Medicines and dietary supplements in advertisements

25.04.2016
The National Broadcasting Council has performed an analysis and monitoring of the market for advertisements of health products and medicines on television programmes.
picture with human hands and pills
The aim of the report was to obtain information on the market for health products and medicines advertised on television programmes, including on the number of distributed advertisements for health products and medicines, as well as data on the changes which the market has undergone in recent years. The qualitative part of the analysis also discusses appropriate viewer protection and checks whether the product information contained in commercial communications violates the binding regulations in this area.

The quantitative analysis was performed on the basis of telemetric data concerning advertising spots broadcast on four universal television programmes: TVP 1, TVP 2, Polsat, TVN, on two programmes directed towards minors: TVP ABC, Mini Mini+ and on three thematic channels: TVN Meteo Activ (formerly TVN Meteo), TVN Style and Polsat Cafe.

The analysis covered commercial communications for: medicinal products, dietary supplements, medical devices, fortified foods, foods for special purposes and cosmetics (including hygiene and personal care products).   Definitions of the individual categories may be found in the Report. The regulatory institute for the market for medicinal products and medical devices is the Office for Registration of Medicinal Products, Medical Devices and Biocidal Products. The market for dietary supplements, fortified foods and foods for special purposes and cosmetics, e.g. hygiene and personal care products, is regulated by the Chief Sanitary Inspectorate. The Ministry of Health oversees both markets.

From 1997 to 2015, the number of advertisements by the health product and medicine sector rose by a factor of nearly 20, that is, by 1998 percent, while the overall number of advertisements increased threefold. In 1997, commercial communications for health products and medicines represented 4.6 percent of all communications, while in 2015, nearly one in four advertisements broadcast on TVP 1, TVP 2, TVN and POLSAT were commercial communications for health products and medicines (24.7 percent).
 
The number of advertisements on programmes directed towards minors was also examined for Mini Mini+ (data from 2010) and TVP ABC (from 2014). The data from 2015 covers the period of 1 January - 30 September 2015.

In the year 2010, 1,853 advertisements for health products and medicines were broadcast on Mini Mini+ (7.67 percent of all advertisements). A decline in advertising for this product group was observed in subsequent years. In the first three quarters of 2015, 1,281 advertisements were broadcast (3.7 percent of all advertisements).
However, the results of the analysis of advertisements for health products and medicines broadcast on TVP ABC were alarming. In the year 2014, 10,406 commercial communications for health products and medicines were broadcast there (8.7 percent), while 16,441 were broadcast in three quarters of 2015, which amounts to 14.5 percent of all advertisements.
 
On thematic programmes promoting a healthy lifestyle – TVN Style, TVN Meteo Activ and Polsat Cafe – the number of advertisements for products and medicines has increased each year. In the year 2010, 75,347 such communications were broadcast (14 percent of all advertisements broadcast), while in 2014 119,749 advertisements were broadcast (17.1 percent).

A qualitative analysis was also carried out on commercial communications for health products and medicines broadcast on the analysed programmes from 5-11 October 2015. A total of 7,711 communications were broadcast.

The report clearly demonstrated that new product categories are emerging, making it more difficult for viewers to understand the communication. Dietary supplements, medical devices, fortified foods and foods for special purposes are also advertised in addition to medicinal products. 

Besides the increase in the number of advertisements for health products and medicines, including on a children’s programme by a public broadcaster, another issue of concern is the use of dual product versions in the advertisement, i.e. the existence of a medicinal product and dietary supplement under the same or similar name, which suggests that the products have similar effects and which may possibly mislead viewers.

Medicines which are available without a prescription (the only type of medicine that may be advertised) are labelled as required by law: they include warnings in the form of an appropriate message, which is also read in voice-over. No medicinal product was presented by a publicly-known person or by persons with a medical or pharmaceutical education, and the commercial communications also inform viewers of the medicine’s purpose, the mechanism of action of the advertised preparation and the speed of its effects.

However, advertisements for various types of pharmaceuticals and medicinal products often make reference to the authority of a physician or pharmacist, which may constitute an abuse of the viewer’s trust.

The report evaluated the qualitative aspects of dietary supplement advertisements much more harshly: most dietary supplement advertisements conceal their true origin. Only four out of thirty-two preparations included verbal information that viewers are dealing with a dietary supplement, not a medicine. In the remaining cases, this information was usually illegible (a small font barely distinguishable from the background was used, and the written information often formed part of the packaging shown or was placed parallel to the shorter side of the screen). Information on dosage, product origin, its ingredients or contraindications were often illegible and resembled the mandatory written information found in advertisements for medicinal preparations, which may mislead the consumer.

Advertisements of medical devices may be the most questionable of all. They are often presented in such a way as to suggest that we are dealing with a medicinal product. During the week-long monitoring, it was noted that either the figure of a doctor or pharmacist was used, or the situation presented took place in a doctor’s or dentist’s office or pharmacy, in 6 out of 11 advertisements presenting medical devices.

Advertisements for medical products also often included expressions related to the treatment process: “available at pharmacies”, “a breakthrough in treatment”, “fighting infection”, “to my patients”.

One of the advertisements for a medical device under the name of Detusan provoked serious reservations among the medical community. According to physicians, it encourages viewers to ignore symptoms of illnesses that may be caused by smoking cigarettes.   The studies point to an insufficient level of knowledge in distinguishing medicinal products from dietary supplements (especially when it comes to the nature and properties of these products). A similar situation may be found in distinguishing medical devices or foods for special purposes.

Out of concern for the health and safety of Polish consumers, it seems action must be taken, firstly, to properly educate consumers about the purpose of this product category, and secondly, to reliably inform them of the properties of the advertised products. This lack of knowledge on consumers’ part may be exploited by dishonest advertisers.

Forecasting the development of the dietary supplements market, the report predicts stable growth in its value, which means even more advertising campaigns in the media.

The number and content of advertisements for pharmaceuticals, dietary supplements and other medicinal products has worried numerous public institutions and non-governmental organisations, which is why an educational campaign to inform consumers of the actual properties of these products was initiated by the Office of Competition and Consumer Protection on 25 November 2015. The guidebook “What you should know about dietary supplements” was created as part of the campaign and is available on the Chief Sanitary Inspectorate’s website.

The National Broadcasting Council works as part of a group of twelve institutions working for better consumer protection against dishonest or illegal information on health products and medicines in the media.

Broadcasting of commercial communications for health products and medicines on television programmes

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