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Regulatory developments for advertising vitamin “immune boosters” during the COVID-19 pandemic

Jill Paterson and Christy Allen discuss steps regulators in the UK have taken to prevent the exploitation of consumers and on limiting the spread of misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Vitamins
Jill Paterson is a consumer lawyer, partner at Leigh Day and consumer rights champion. She is passionate about product safety, patient & consumer rights. She tweets as @paterson_jill
Regulators have taken action to address new and heightened false advertising concerns over businesses promoting vitamin shots on websites and social media which have stated or implied that intravenous drips could help to prevent or treat COVID-19. 

IV clinics have been stealthily popping up all over the world and are often promoted by celebrities and influencers on social media.

In the UK, there are at least 17 IV clinics and 2,500 private clinics which offer IV therapy. However, NHS England has issued warnings about the use of intravenous vitamin drips, claiming they “exploit a worried public” and criticising companies for peddling fake health remedies.

Additionally, no treatments have yet been approved by the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), meaning that companies cannot make medical claims on their products relating to COVID-19. 

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has taken a pro-active approach and introduced guidance on responsible advertising relating to COVID-19 which explicitly prohibits supplements making any claims to prevent, treat or cure human disease. 

It has also introduced a new fast-track reporting form for consumer complaints about advertisements relating to coronavirus which will allow it to contact brands quickly to remove potentially harmful promotions. 

In May, the MHRA and the ASA published an Enforcement Notice which makes clear to businesses which offer vitamin shots the nature of the rulings and directs them to remove any COVID-19 related claims from their websites and social media pages. 

The following sets out and details these most recent regulatory developments:
  •  Prescription-only medicines (POMs) cannot be advertised to the public. 
  • Injectable vitamin D and injectable vitamin B12, specifically, are prescription-only medicines 
  • Advertisers must not, directly or indirectly, promote POMs to the public. Targeted enforcement, with the aid of monitoring technology, to find problem ads for removal and sanction came into effect on 12 June 2020. It also states this applies to ads for all “vitamin shot” products, not just vitamin D or vitamin B12. 
  • Action against direct and indirect claims that vitamin shots could help treat or prevent COVID-19

The action on vitamin D and injectable vitamin B12 POMs came following the publication of a ruling by the ASA in March, which challenged a promotional email from SkinspaceUK  (a Manchester-based aesthetic clinic). 

The email had the subject line “40% off! In the fight against viruses!” followed by “it’s time to boost your immunity! In the fight against viruses! Book in for your vitamin D & B12 shots! Supports your immune system, lung function and aids faster recovery from illness & viruses!”. 

The ASA ruled the advertising of POMs to the general public was prohibited by the Human Medicines Regulations 2012 (HMRs) and that was reflected in The Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) Code rule 12.12.  

Despite SkinspaceUK saying that the email was only sent to their client database, the ASA ruled this breached the Code because the ad was sent to existing customers, who were consumers, rather than medical professionals.

The ASA also assessed the specific claims made in the email from SkinspaceUK. It stated, “in the context of a global pandemic of coronavirus/COVID-19, consumers were likely to understand that “viruses” included coronavirus. 

The Enforcement Notice gives additional guidance to remove direct or implied reference to treat or prevent COVID-19, which is considered relevant to all “vitamin shot” products. It states, “this includes indirect claims that ‘vitamin shots’ could help to prevent or treat COVID.” 

The ASA has subsequently banned three private medical clinics from advertising intravenous vitamin drips which claimed to help protect against COVID-19. 

Two Instagram posts made in March by Cosmetic Medical Advice UK suggested that “super immune system booster” IV drip was an effective way to protect viral infections. 

Another business, “Private Harley Street Clinic” said on its website that it is possible to boost the immune system by an IV infusion of essential vitamins, minerals and amino acids. 

In the third case, Reviv, a company with clinics in Greater Manchester, London and Leeds, also claimed to offer protection against COVID-19 through “high intravenous doses of vitamin C”.  

All three adverts have now been taken down after the ASA said the online posts were a “straight breach” of the rules on products sold to treat or prevent disease. 

In its assessment, ASA sought the view of the MHRA that any mention of COVID-19 in the promotion of an IV drip product would bring the product under medicines regulations, as would any claim which implied treatment of, or protection from, the virus. 

More recently, the ASA banned social media ads from the company Revival Shots, for claiming its rehydration sachets could boost immunity and implying it could cure COVID-19. 

In its ruling, the ASA highlighted the advertisement mentioned that vitamin C boosts immunity and was “now being tested in the USA and China as a possible cure for COVID-19”.

The ASA concluded: “We considered the ad implied that consuming Revival Shots could, through their vitamin C content, help to cure COVID-19.” 

A second post shared one five-star review from a customer following a group of hashtags: “#immunity #immunityboost #vitaminc … #staysafe." And “After developing symptoms of a sore throat & headache got paranoid… In about half an hour I felt instantly revived…Since taking I have had no symptoms”.

The ASA stated it will be taking a broader approach to indirect claims in the current context. 

In its review the ASA said: “Given the ad was posted in mid-April 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, referred to symptoms sometimes associated with COVID-19 and the reviewer’s ‘paranoia’ about those symptoms, and including the hashtag #staysafe which is commonly associated with the pandemic, the ad therefore implied Revival Shots could help to cure COVID-19.”  

Consumers will be reassured, and we welcome the fact that the regulators are acting quickly and decisively in these matters.
 

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