Allegation of ‘Marketing Malpractices’ in the pharmaceutical Industry of India has assumed a huge proportion– who will ‘bell the cat’?

Sometime back, in its January – March, 2004 issue, ‘Indian Journal of Medical Ethics’ (IJME)in context of marketing practices for ethical pharmaceutical products in India commented:“If the one who decides, does not pay and the one who pays, does not decide and if the one who decides is ‘paid’, will truth stand any chance?”Three year after, in 2007 the situation remained unchanged when IJME (April – June 2007 edition) once again reported:

“Misleading information, incentives, unethical trade practices were identified as methods to increase the prescription and sales of drugs. Medical Representatives provide incomplete medical information to influence prescribing practices; they also offer incentives including conference sponsorship. Doctors may also demand incentives, as when doctors’ associations threaten to boycott companies that do not comply with their demands for sponsorship.”

This situation is not limited to India alone. It has been reported from across the world. ‘The New England Journal of Medicine’, April 26, 2007 reported that virtually, all doctors in the US take freebies from drug companies, and a third take money for lecturing, and signing patients up for trials. The study conducted on 3167 physicians in six specialities (anaesthesiology, cardiology, family practice, general surgery, internal medicine and paediatrics) reported that 94% of the physicians had ‘some type of relationship with the pharmaceutical industry’, and 83% of these relationships involved receiving food at the workplace and 78% receiving free drug samples. 35% of the physicians received re-imbursement for cost associated with professional meetings or continuing medical education (CME). And the more influential a doctor was, the greater the likelihood that he or she would be benefiting from a drug company’s largess.

Even our own ‘The Times of India’ reported the following on December 15, 2008:

1. “The more drugs a doctor prescribes of a company, greater the chances of him or her winning a
car, a high-end fridge or TV set.”

2. “Also, drug companies dole out free trips with family to exotic destinations like Turkey or Kenya.”

3. “In the West, unethical marketing practices attract stiff penalties.”

4. “In India, there are only vague assurances of self-regulation by the drug industry and reliance on
doctors’ ethics.”

Such issues are not related only to physicians. ‘Scrip’ dated February 6, 2009 published an article titled: “marketing malpractices: an unnecessary burden to bear”. The article commented:

“Marketing practices that seem to be a throwback to a different age continue to haunt the industry. Over the past few months, some truly large sums have been used to resolve allegations in the US of marketing and promotional malpractice by various companies. These were usually involving the promotion of off-label uses for medicines. One can only hope that lessons have been learnt and the industry moves on.”

“As the sums involved in settling these cases of marketing malpractices have become progressively larger, and if companies do not become careful even now, such incidents will not only affect their reputation but financial performance too.”

Huge settlement sums involved in such ‘federal misdemeanour’ cases could act as a reasonably strong deterrent in the USA. However, in India, even the written complaints to the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) about ‘off label’ promotion of drugs attracts no such punitive measure. Marketing malpractices in India seems to have now become a routine, as it were. All stakeholders, in principle, agree that it should stop. But in absence of any strong deterrent, like in the USA, will it remain just as another wishful thinking?

Both the Government and the industry talk about ‘self regulation’ to address this issue. This is indeed a very pragmatic thought. A part of the industry already has such a self regulation system in place. But the moot question that comes in everybody’s mind is it working, effectively?

To effectively address this issue should the entire pharmaceutical industry in India together not form a self regulatory body in line with “Consumer complaint council” of “The Advertising Standards Council of India”, as was created by the Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) industry? The decisions taken by the ‘pharma council’ against each complaint of marketing malpractice should be disseminated to all concerned, to make the system robust and transparent…and in that process it will act as a strong deterrent too.

By Tapan Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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