After a recent ASA warning to four clinics, Aesthetics explores the rules against advertising prescription-only medicines online
Advertising prescription-only medicines (POMs) is prohibited to the general public in the UK.1 However, this isn’t stopping some clinics from bending the rules. In recent rulings by the UK’s advertising watchdog, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), three medical aesthetic clinics and a beauty salon have been told to remove promotion of the hay fever injection, Kenalog, on their social media accounts for their summer campaigns.2-5 The ads all appeared on Instagram, with captions including: ‘If you love spring or summer but hate the hay fever symptoms that the seasons bring, you might want to consider an annual Kenalog injection’ as well as ‘I now have Kenalog injections at £40 per shot’.
The ASA ruled that the ads breached the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) Code 12.12 regarding medicines, medical devices, health-related products and beauty products.6 As a result, the ASA ruled that the ads must not appear in their current form and the clinics faced a warning against promoting POMs to the general public.
This isn’t the first time the industry has had to be reminded of rules surrounding POMs. In 2020, the CAP and Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) together issued an Enforcement Notice to the beauty and cosmetic services industry after noticing a rise of social media posts promoting botulinum toxin to the public.7 Following the new ASA rulings, we spoke to Matthew Wilson, media and public affairs manager from the ASA and aesthetic practitioner Dr Sophie Shotter, who performs hay fever injections at her clinic, to find out why people are still breaking the rules against advertising POMs and what needs to be done to prevent this from happening again in the future.
A lack of understanding
According to the ASA, POMs are a specific class of medicine that must be prescribed by an authorised healthcare professional.8 In aesthetics, common POMs that appear in clinics include treatments like botulinum toxin, weight loss injections, hyaluronidase and hay fever injections.
Despite the ASA having regulations on this, it has not prevented promotional ads being posted online. Wilson says, “We can’t presume to know all the reasons or second guess why a business or sole trader might advertise POMs. Perhaps one reason with regards to a small-medium enterprise or an individual is a lack of awareness of the rules. Ignorance of the rules is not, however, an excuse!” Wilson adds that it is therefore the responsibility of those marketing these treatments to educate themselves on the relevant CAP codes.6
Dr Shotter agrees that some people are unaware of the rules, however, believes others are happy to disobey them, including advertising for botulinum toxin injectables. She explains, “Unfortunately, I think that many clinics and practitioners are either unaware of, or choose to blatantly flout, advertising rules. I see clinics advertising botulinum toxin daily, and during hay fever season, I see hay fever injections promoted just as regularly.”
Dr Shotter notes that practitioners have a duty of care and responsibility to patients and therefore should be upholding regulations surrounding advertising. She adds, “POMs should not be referred to by name and these treatments should be marketed responsibly. This means making patients aware that there are other treatments available and perhaps they should try those first. We also need to ensure that POMs don’t appear on website landing pages. I would encourage clinics to write a blog about hay fever and include this treatment as an option rather than heavily marketing it as a ‘quick fix’.”
Advertising POMs online has serious consequences for practitioners and business owners and therefore a thorough understanding of the regulations should be upheld. Wilson notes, “Potential serious physical/medical harm can be caused to patients through the administration or sale of POMs for conditions which professional medical advice should be sought. Practitioners breaking the advertising rules will face an ad ban or potential further sanctions from the ASA, as it is an offence under the Human Medicines Regulations 2012.9 A business may also face consequences from a statutory enforcement body.”
The repercussions of advertising POMs online can have a detrimental impact on a practitioner’s clinic and their reputability. Dr Shotter advises other practitioners to firstly contact clinics directly if they see illegal advertising. She explains, “If highlighted directly to the practitioner, many people will respond positively and reply that they are unaware of the ASA regulations, so I feel it’s important that we give our colleagues this chance. If this doesn’t succeed, then consider reporting the post or website to the ASA for investigation.10 As practitioners, we have a responsibility to try to uphold high standards within our sector.”
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