New Delhi: The central government has once again warned pharma companies against arranging five-star accommodation and sightseeing tours for doctors attending medical conferences, ThePrint has learnt.
The latest warning refers to a national-level conference organised by the Indian Psychiatric Society (IPS), an organisation representing psychiatrists, in Kolkata on 24 January.
In a notice issued 4 February, the Department of Pharmaceuticals [DoP], the apex body laying down policies for the industry, warned players in the field against promoting their products in unethical ways.
“[The] Department has received a grievance alleging that pharma companies arrange hotels, accommodations in five-star hotels, local sightseeing etc in conferences conducted by doctors,” the notice said.
It, however, didn’t clarify whether the grievance received pertains to the IPS conference.
The notice is addressed to organisations that comprise the drugmaker lobby, including the Indian Drug Manufacturers Association (IDMA), the Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance (IPA), the Federation of Pharma Entrepreneurs (FOPE) and the Organisation of Pharmaceutical Producers of India (OPPI).
These associations represent top drugmakers such as Johnson & Johnson, Astra Zeneca, Sun Pharma, Mankind Pharma, Lupin, Glenmark and Novartis.
Referring to the next edition of the annual national conference, scheduled for 2021 in Visakhapatnam, the department asked pharma associations to ensure companies “adhere to the… Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCPMP) and no unethical promotion of pharma products is done during such conferences”.
The UCPMP is a voluntary code of conduct for ethical marketing practices, and it bars pharma firms from offering inducements to doctors to promote their products.
Approached for comment about the notice, the IPS sought to emphasise its commitment to ethical practices.
“We have just wrapped up one conference in Kolkata, where we have adhered to ethical practices. In an upcoming event, which is slated for next year, we will abide by the notification, as always,” said IPS president P.K. Dalal.
Kanchana T.K., director general and board member at OPPI, said, “…keeping the patient’s interest at the centre of all that we do, we have been advocating with the Department of Pharmaceuticals for the UCPMP to be made mandatory and self-regulatory.” This will ensure, Kanchana added, that the code “guides the entire pharma industry to adopt and adhere to ethical marketing practices”.
ThePrint has also sent emails to other associations for comment. This report will be updated when they respond.
Not the first time
The UCPMP, released in 2014, is a voluntary code that guides marketing practices for pharmaceutical companies and the medical devices industry.
The code stops pharma firms from gifting sample products to healthcare professionals. It also states that each sample pack given to a doctor should be limited to the prescribed dosage for three patients.
The code says “no gifts, pecuniary advantages or benefits in kind may be supplied, offered or promised to persons qualified to prescribe or supply drugs, by a pharmaceutical company or any of its agents i.e. distributors, wholesalers, retailers etc”.
Also applicable to the family members of healthcare professionals, the code says “companies or their associations shall not extend any travel facility inside the country or outside including rail, air, ship, cruise tickets, paid vacations, etc. to healthcare professionals and their family members for vacation or for attending press conferences”.
However, alleged inducements from pharma companies remain a cause for much concern among activists and in the government as well.
A report published in August 2019 by NGO Support for Advocacy and Training to Health (SATHI) suggested that medical representatives (MRs) — the people who pitch products to doctors on behalf of pharma firms — offer foreign trips, expensive smartphones and even women as bribes.
At a review meeting held four months later, on 23 December, with the IDMA, the IPA and the OPPI, the government lashed out against their alleged failure to comply with the UCPMP.
Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked pharmaceutical companies to strictly adhere to marketing ethics. The meeting was attended by officials from top drugmakers, including Zydus Cadila, Torrent Pharmaceuticals and Wockhardt.
Healthcare activist Malini Aisola said the DoP should “immediately implement a mandatory mechanism for company disclosure of payments towards doctors and professional bodies, including via third parties”.
“The disclosures, which should be made at intervals and put in public domain, should include the amount spent, individual or entity to which payment was made, and the reason for payment, including any services rendered,” added Aisola, co-convenor of the All India Drug Action Network (AIDAN), a network of NGOs working to ensure sound and easy access to healthcare.