Healthcare - Ethical & OTC Consumer - Cannabis spray offers hope to MS sufferers

Bayer Healthcare launched Sativex, the first cannabis-based medicine, in the UK in June 2010 to help treat spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis.

Cannabis spray: offers hope to MS sufferers
Cannabis spray: offers hope to MS sufferers

Campaign Sativex launch
Client Bayer Healthcare
PR team Liberation Communications
Timescale May 2010
Budget Less than £100,000

This was the first medication to alleviate such symptoms to enter the market for many years, so expectations were high among MS sufferers, the medical industry and the media.

However, debates and media coverage on street cannabis had been high on the news agenda. The existence of the Government's advisory group on drugs, and statements made by its former chair on the legalisation of the drug, meant that care and consideration needed to be taken during the launch.


  • To control the response from the media to Sativex
  • To establish at least two national opinion leaders to act as spokespeople
  • To ensure Sativex was included in the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence's MS guidelines and not selected for a single technology appraisal.

Strategy and plan

Liberation conducted media training with Bayer to ensure the brand's message was right, while briefing expert spokespeople to deal with difficult questions on street cannabis.

Maintaining relationships with MS nurses and clinicians, those engaged in national trials and health correspondents was crucial to the launch. Partnerships with the MS Society and MS Trust were developed to drive national and local policy, and establish Liberation as the main media point of contact.

Suitable candidates for case studies were found through the MS Society, and discussions were held with health journalists to ensure media coverage was compliant with the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry's code.

National and regional advisory boards with consultants, MS nurses, clinicians, nurses and physiotherapists were held before and after the launch to establish Bayer's support from those individuals.

Health correspondents were consulted regularly to ensure the successful run of the story. To provide a better understanding of how Sativex is manufactured to broadcast and online media, secure filming of the growing facility was made available. Following the launch, the PR team wanted to generate as many features as possible in the national media.

Measurements and evaluation

More than 200 pieces of coverage were generated in national and regional broadcast, print and online media, including ITV News, GMTV and Sky News.


NICE decided not to conduct an appraisal on Sativex and instead incorporated it into its MS guidelines. Media coverage reinforced further work by Bayer and the MS Society to overcome national primary care trust barriers for patient access.

The campaign established four national and ten regional spokespeople and advisers. Media coverage of Sativex remained responsible, without sensationalist headlines. The campaign has been shortlisted for a PRWeek Award.


Jo Spadaccino, Director of pharma and life sciences division, Pegasus PR

Prescription medicine launches are heavily regulated, so it is sometimes difficult to judge what makes a good or bad comms job.

If the product is of value, then by sticking to a well-trodden formula the results should follow. This one required some very safe hands.

The team did a great job of managing the message - from cherry-picking its most trusted journalists to act as key opinion leaders in the reporting, to aligning with the range of stakeholders. I particularly liked the joint press office collaboration with patient associations, demonstrating the strength of relationships.

The team showed it was not afraid to challenge a black and white interpretation of the regulatory code.

Ensuring patient case studies could specifically mention their medication rightly focused the message on its health benefits, rather than its controversial ingredient.

As an exercise in message control, it is a textbook example.

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