Safeway ad raises health concerns

Safeway broke Health Canada rules for the way it has been advertising a vaccine, CBC News has learned.

Safeway broke Health Canada rules for the way it has been advertising a vaccine, CBC News has learned.

The grocery chain's pharmacies are selling a one-time shot called Zostavax, which is supposed to prevent shingles — a painful, red, blistering rash that afflicts many seniors and others.

The vaccine costs about $180 and is not covered by any provincial drug plan in Canada.

Safeway is offering 100 Air Miles to those who buy it. The offer is advertised in an Air Miles mailout.

The problem is, the ad has no cautionary information as required by Health Canada, including who the vaccine is intended for, and that it should be discussed first with a doctor.

What's more concerning for Arthur Schafer, a medical ethicist from the University of Manitoba, is that patients are being offered a reward to buy the vaccine.

"Don't be influenced by Air Miles promotions. That's the worst way in making decisions," Schafer said.

"The decision whether or not to put medicine in your body is an important decision, and you should make it with objective information."

"I was shocked to see people being offered a financial incentive to get vaccinated," added Barbara Mintzes, a pharmacology professor at the University of British Columbia.

Association looking into ad

As a result of the CBC News investigation, Health Canada has told Safeway to obey the rules.

As well, Ronald Guse, the registrar for the Manitoba Pharmaceutical Association, said his organization is looking into whether the ad breaks any of its provincial guidelines.

The association will speak to Safeway and make a judgment if any rules appear to have been broken, Guse said.

A Safeway spokesman said the missing medical information on its ad was an omission.

"We have taken immediate action to ensure the appropriate cautionary statement is incorporated in all future advertisements," said John Graham.

He also noted that patients still need a doctor's prescription to buy Zostavax.

"So while this statement should have been included, there is some comfort in the level of evaluation a patient receives before Zostavax is administered."

As for the Air Miles bonus, Graham said the ad was sent to targeted Safeway Air Miles customers in western Canada only.

"This issue was not with the Air Miles offer that is permissible; it was the omission of the cautionary statement," he said.