Jacob Puliyel: Advertising standards and vaccine promotion in India

jacob_puliyelUntil last week few people in India had heard of the existence of the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI). Suddenly in the newspapers on the 15 December 2012 the ASCI was prominently featured. The story was about an advertisement for rotavirus vaccine on TV channels in many parts of the country. Set up in 1985 as a self regulatory voluntary organisation of the advertising industry, ASCI’s code in advertising is now part of  the “advertisement code,” and its violation is now violation of government rules.

GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals have been advertising its rotavirus vaccine directly to the public on TV channels. A public health doctor complained to the ASCI some months back. After deliberating on the complaint, the ASCI’s consumer complaints council concluded that the claim made in the advertisement, “vaccine is the only way to reduce the incidence of infection,” was inadequately substantiated. Further the statement, “rotavirus vaccine is the only way to treat rotavirus,” was misleading. Chapter 1.1 of the advertising code 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.

The complainant had pointed out that infection was spread by the ingestion of the virus from contaminated food and water, and good hygiene would help to check the spread of rotavirus. She argued that there were no studies to show that the vaccine was effective in reducing the incidence of diarrhoea or deaths in India. The vaccine was extremely expensive, she said, and the public were being fooled into spending a huge sum on a vaccine that was not proven effective (against the local strains of rotavirus,) hence it had no importance from a public health perspective.

The verdict of the ASCI coincides with the publication of a head to head debate about rotavirus vaccine in India in the BMJ and at least one prominent newspaper mentions the BMJ article in the context of the newspaper report of the ASCI decision.

Jacob Puliyel is a pediatrician and head of department at St Stephen’s Hospital in Delhi.