Big Pharma Receives Another Body Blow: Would Indian Slumber End Now?

On May 13, 2014, The New York Times reported, while major pharmaceutical companies have been facing increased scrutiny of their marketing practices from governments around the world, last Wednesday the Chinese authorities sent a strong warning to the pharmaceutical industry implicating Mark Reilly, the former head of Glaxo’s China operations, of ordering his subordinates to form a “massive bribery network” that resulted in higher drug prices and illegal revenue of more than US$150 million.  Mr. Reilly, a Briton, and two Chinese-born Glaxo executives, Zhang Guowei and Zhao Hongyan, had allegedly arranged to bribe government officials in Beijing and Shanghai.

The Chinese police has reportedly said that its 10-month investigation has found that under Mr. Reilly, Glaxo had pushed its staff to meet aggressive sales targets and that the company had conducted “false transactions” through its financial department to transfer “illegal gains” made in China to overseas companies. The authorities also said Mr. Reilly and other senior executives at Glaxo had bribed officials to stop investigations of wrongdoing at the company.

The report also states, although bribery is common in China, it is rare for foreign-born executives from MNCs to be prosecuted. In 2009, a Chinese-born Australian executive at the British-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto was arrested in a bribery and money-laundering case.

“Ethics Matter” – A Chinese warning to MNCs:

On May 16, 2014, Xinhua – the official news agency of China wrote in an editorial that Chinese probe into GSK’s local sales practices should send a warning to other foreign companies doing business in the country that “Ethics Matter”.

This stern action by China is indeed another body blow on the so called ‘ethical image’ of Big Pharma, despite its sophisticated global ‘Public Relations’ machinery working overtime under the respective pharma associations across the world.

Drug price manipulation:

While citing the example of a hepatitis B drug – Heptodin, Xinhua editorial said that GSK “manipulated prices to disguise real costs”, as Heptodin is declared as 73 Yuan to customs in China even though the actual cost is 15.7 Yuan and is sold at 26 Yuan in Canada or 30 Yuan in the U.K.

Quoting a Ministry of Public Security official at a briefing on May 14, it stated that Glaxo charged prices in China that in some cases were seven times as high as in other countries, and used the extra money to pay bribes.

According to this media report, in June last year, “Chinese authorities began investigating allegations that Glaxo had funneled money through local travel agencies to pay bribes to doctors in return for prescribing its drugs. They last year detained some executives on suspicion of economic crimes involving 3 billion Yuan of spurious expenses and trading in sexual favors.”

Not a first time allegation:

This is not the first of such cases and most probably won’t be the last also. Since quite some time many pharmaceutical giants are being reportedly investigated and fined, including out of court settlements, for bribery charges related to the physicians.

In this context July 4, 2012, edition of The Guardian reported a similar astonishing story on Big Pharma. When you click on this short video clipping, which was published on September 29, 2012 you would see that Big Pharma’s Medicaid fraud penalties had reached a record high with GlaxoSmithKline fined $3 Billion in the United States at that time.

It is widespread:

Following are a few more recent examples to help fathom the enormity of the problem:

  • In March 2014, the antitrust regulator of Italy reportedly fined two Swiss drug majors, Novartis and Roche 182.5 million euros (U$ 251 million) for allegedly blocking distribution of Roche’s Avastin cancer drug in favor of a more expensive drug Lucentis that the two companies market jointly for an eye disorder.
  • Just before this, in the same month of March 2014, it was reported that a German court had fined 28 million euro (US$ 39 million) to the French pharma major Sanofi and convicted two of its former employees on bribery charges.
  • In November 2013, Teva Pharmaceutical reportedly said that an internal investigation turned up suspect practices in countries ranging from Latin America to Russia.
  • In May 2013, Sanofi was reportedly fined US$ 52.8 Million by the French competition regulator for trying to limit sales of generic versions of the company’s Plavix.
  • In August 2012, Pfizer Inc. was reportedly fined US$ 60.2 million by the US Securities and Exchange Commission to settle a federal investigation on alleged bribing of overseas doctors and other health officials to prescribe medicines.
  • In April 2012, a judge in Arkansas, US, reportedly fined Johnson & Johnson and a subsidiary more than US$1.2 billion after a jury found that the companies had minimized or concealed the dangers associated with an antipsychotic drug.

There are many more of such examples.

The situation is alarming in India too:

Back home in India, deep anguish of the stakeholders over this issue is now being increasingly reverberated on every passing day, as it were. It has also drawn the attention of the patients’ groups, NGOs, media, Government, Planning Commission and even the Parliament.

An article titled, “Healthcare industry is a rip-off” published in a leading daily, the author highlighted that the absence of regulatory oversight in the healthcare industry needs urgent attention.

The quality of the pharmaceutical marketing in India has touched a new low, causing suffering to patients. Unethical drug promotion is increasingly becoming an emerging threat to society. The Government provides few checks and balances on drug promotion.

To counter the problem of ‘Unethical Drug Promotion’ to a great extent, the author broadly recommended the following:

  • Preparing treatment guidelines,
  • Conducting periodic prescription audits,
  • Generating consumer awareness and empowering consumer with relevant information in an user friendly way
  • Regulating entertainment of doctors in the garb of Continuing Medical Education (CME)

Moreover, the Department Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health and Family Welfare in its 58th Report strongly indicted the Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP) on this score. It observed that the DoP should take prompt action in making the ‘Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCPMP)’ mandatory so that effective checks and balances could be brought-in on ‘huge promotional costs and the resultant add-on impact on medicine prices’.

Even the Planning Commission of India has reportedly recommended strong measures against pharmaceutical marketing malpractices as follows:

“Pharmaceutical marketing and aggressive promotion also contributes to irrational use. There is a need for a mandatory code for identifying and penalizing unethical promotion on the part of pharma companies. Disclosure by pharmaceutical companies of the expenditure incurred on drug promotion to be made mandatory, ghost writing in promotion of pharma products to attract disqualification of the author as well as penalty on the company, and vetting of drug related material in Continuing Medical Education (CME) should be considered.”

Unfortunately, nothing substantive has been done in India to effectively address such malpractices in a comprehensive manner, as yet, to protect patients’ interest.

A pending PIL:

Despite deplorable inaction by the government on the subject, frequent reporting by Indian media has triggered a national debate on this issue. A related Public Interest Litigation (PIL) is also now pending before the Supreme Court for hearing in the near future. Its judicial verdict is expected to usher in a breath of fresh air around a rather stifling environment for the patients.

Ethical marketing conduct in India – A Survey:

survey report of Ernst and Young titled, “Pharmaceutical marketing: ethical and responsible conduct”, carried out in September 2011 on the UCMP and MCI guidelines, highlighted the following:

  • Two-third of the respondents felt that the implementation of the UCPMP would change the manner in which pharma products are currently marketed in India.
  • More than 50 percent of the respondents are of the opinion that the UCPMP may lead to manipulation in recording of actual sampling activity.
  • Over 50 percent of the respondents indicated that the effectiveness of the code would be very low in the absence of legislative support provided to the UCPMP committee.
  • 90 percent of the respondents felt that pharma companies in India should focus on building a robust internal controls system to ensure compliance with the UCPMP.
  • 72 percent of the respondents felt that the MCI is not stringently enforcing its medical ethics guidelines for the doctors.
  • 36 percent of the respondents felt that the MCI’s guidelines could have an impact on the overall sales of pharma companies.

 Conclusion:

Increasingly many companies across the world are reportedly being forced to pay heavily for ‘unethical behavior and business practices’ by the respective governments.

Intense quarterly pressure for expected business performance by stock markets and shareholders could apparently be the trigger-points for short changing such codes and values.

Be that as it may, I reckon, the need to announce and implement the UCPMP by the Department of Pharmaceutical under the new Modi Government, assumes critical importance in today’s chaotic pharmaceutical marketing scenario. At the same time, demonstrable qualitative changes in corporate ethics and value standards in this regard should always be important goals for any pharmaceutical business corporation in India.

Though late, China has at least started cracking down on the perpetrators of this alleged crime. As corruption conscious Modi-Government assumes office in the country, would India wake-up now to stop this growing menace by enacting and then strictly enforcing the rule of law?

By: Tapan J 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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