January 15, 2009 2:00 am

Pfizer uses big screen to fight counterfeits

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Pfizer, the world’s largest pharmaceuticals company, launches a hard-hitting cinema advertising campaign on Friday to warn consumers of the medical dangers of counterfeits when illegally purchasing prescription medicines on the internet .

The advert, to be shown in 600 cinemas around the UK, is best seen before filmgoers dig into their popcorn. It shows a middle-aged man spitting up a rat after swallowing a tablet delivered by post.

The campaign reflects growing safety concerns – and commercial losses for the drug industry – caused by a rise in unregulated internet sales of medicines.

It also marks an intriguing extension of the limits on advertising by drug companies to raise their public profile, in spite of tight restrictions on the marketing of prescription medicines to consumers.

The film contains no reference to Pfizer’s medicines but shows the corporate logo alongside that of the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, the UK watchdog that co-ordinates an increasing number of investigations and prosecutions of counterfeiters. It agreed to a pioneering partnership with the company.

Pfizer has raised its public image as a crusader against counterfeits, warning of health risks and calling for action against parallel traders. These are the intermediaries that buy medicines abroad for resale at higher prices in the UK. Pfizer argues parallel trading risks allowing fakes into pharmacies.

But the overall level of counterfeit medicines in the developed world is estimated at only about 1 per cent, with most sold via the internet rather than through normal supply chains. A recent Pfizer poll suggested 10 per cent of men purchased prescription-only medicines via unregulated sources including the internet.

Pfizer is one of the hardest hit by internet sales of medicines, since it produces a fifth of the top-selling prescription medicines in the UK by sales, including the erectile dysfunction treatment Viagra.

The campaign, which includes a website, costs nearly £500,000 ($731,000).

The cinematic rat was inspired by the discovery of rat poison in a counterfeit version of a Pfizer blood pressure drug. Pfizer said rats it used in the advert were supplied by trained specialists and not killed during filming.

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