At a glance: MHRA clips wings of Butterflies Healthcare

What has Butterflies done wrong? The Banbury-based minnow suggested that the Viteyes range of nutritional supplements (containing vitamins and zinc), which it markets in the UK, could slow age-related macular degeneration.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) last week disagreed.

And macular degeneration is...? incurable eye disease caused by the deterioration of the retina's central portion – the macula – which controls our ability to read, recognise faces and distinguish colours. It is a major cause of blindness for the over-50s.

So this is a false claim?
There is some evidence to support the use of a specific combination of antioxidant vitamins and zinc (called the AREDS formula, and present in five of the Viteyes products) in specific groups of patients with advanced disease in one eye only. But making a medicinal claim for a product can only be done if it has a licence – which Viteyes does not.

And the MHRA decided to step in?
Well, not before receiving a complaint last month from Drugs &
Therapeutics Bulletin, the Which? publication. The MHRA has now
told Butterflies which claims are unacceptable and the company has altered its website and begun revising packaging material.

What is Butterflies saying about  this?
Its in-house media relations and medical education campaigns, aimed at trade papers and optometrists, will now not mention any link with either AREDS or macular degeneration. James Sutton, the firm's owner, told PRWeek that it will be allowed only to make general statements about Viteyes, such as 'promotes eye health', from now on.

The whole health supplements market is tricky ground comms-wise isn't it?
The Butterflies case highlights
the central problem – that of promoting the benefits of supplements without making claims about their efficacy. Agencies with vitamin supplement accounts – often not healthcare specialists – have to be careful about the way they construct PR campaigns.

How big is the market for nutritional supplements?
Pretty sizeable. In the UK we spent £442m on vitamins and dietary supplements in 2004, according to Euromonitor.

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