TV commercial on GlaxoSmithKline’s vaccine against Rota virus makes unsubstantiated claims, says ASCI

At a time when the commercial interests of major private hospitals or pharma giants often take precedence over the health concerns of the common man, a New Delhi doctor has managed to get the Advertising Standards Council of India to stall a television commercial, aired by GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals, hailing the benefits of its vaccine against Rota virus.

The ASCI, a self-regulatory voluntary body of the advertising industry, has upheld the complaint filed by Nalini Abraham and concluded that the advertisement contravened Chapters 1.1 and 1.4 of the ASCI Code.

Chapter 1.1 says advertisements must be truthful and any claims should be capable of substantiation. According to Clause 1.4, advertisements shall neither distort facts nor mislead the consumer through implications or omissions.

In her complaint, Dr. Abraham raised several points of contention. Vaccines, she said, were prescription drugs. It amounted to a misrepresentation of facts when the advertisement claimed that “the vaccine is the only way to reduce the incidence of infection and steps like frequent hand-washing do not help.”

Dr. Abraham pointed out that Rota virus was spread by the ingestion of the virus from contaminated food and water, and hygiene definitely helped to check the infection. She also argued that there was not a single study till date that showed that the vaccine was effective in India to reduce the incidence of diarrhoea or deaths due to it, as there were numerous local strains of the virus.

The vaccine was extremely expensive, she said, and the public were being fooled into spending a huge sum on a vaccine which was not proven effective against the local strains of Rota virus, hence had no importance from a public health perspective.

She said the issues raised by the vaccine were complex, and for that very reason, it should not be allowed to be a subject of a direct-to-public advertisement, that too in a misleading fashion, designed to increase the profit of the company.

After deliberating on the complaint, the ASCI’s Consumer Complaints Council concluded that the claim in the advertisement, “vaccine is the only way to reduce the incidence of infection,” was inadequately substantiated. And the statement, “Rota virus vaccine is the only way to treat Rota virus,” was misleading.

The advertisement, which had been appearing in various television channels in the Hindi belt, was discontinued after the ASCI’s decision.

Talking to The Hindu , Dr. Abraham, a public health specialist, said: “The advertisement was very disturbing because what they [the company] said in it was not true at all, and the vaccine was being projected as ‘the’ solution to deaths due to diarrhoea. Awareness campaigns on vaccinations are fine, but to promote a vaccine directly to the public, especially when there is no public health guideline from the government…, is not quite the same.”