The recent controversy following tax raids against Bengaluru-based drugmaker Micro Labs, maker of popular paracetamol brand Dolo, is likely to shake things up by making the Universal Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCPMP), which has yet to be implemented as a binding code of ethics law.
The Supreme Court of India hears a plea asking the Center to give the UCPMP a statutory basis and make it effective, transparent and accountable.
Indian Federation of Medical and Commercial Representatives President Ramesh Sundar said Trade standard that the government has been dragging its feet for several years to implement the UCPMP, which codifies the do’s and don’ts of promoting drugs to pharmaceutical companies, the roles played by sales representatives, etc.
“This is a voluntary code and it is not legally binding on companies. We want that if found guilty of unethical promotion of drug brands to doctors, companies should face the same criminal action as mentioned in the Indian Penal Code for bribery and other unethical practices. similar ethics,” Sundar said. The court has now given the Union government time to respond.
People who have been following the case closely for years say the UCPMP is lost in the tussle between the Department of Pharmaceuticals under the Department of Chemicals and Fertilizers and the Union Department of Health. . “The DoP is complicit with industry in not making the UCPMP legally binding on business. It is now up to the pharmaceutical associations to monitor the implementation of this voluntary code,” said Malini Aisola, co-organizer, All India Drugs Action Network (AIDAN). Aisola added that the UCPMP provisions of penalizing doctors or pharmaceutical companies cannot be implemented under the Essential Commodities Act, which is the parent law that the DoP used to formulate this code. . “The UCPMP should instead be part of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act. But then the nodal department for implementing the code would be the Union Department of Health and that is where things have been in limbo for years,” she explained.
Why is UCPMP implementation critical?
The Micro Labs incident exposed an uncomfortable truth in which pharmaceutical companies offer cash and in-kind gifts to doctors as an incentive to prescribe their drugs.
“Most of the time pharmaceutical companies would give doctors branded keepsakes like pen holders, calendars, diaries or even sanitizers etc. and the main intention is to have a reminder of their brands. The Indian market is controlled by prices. So the differentiator here is the brands and so it’s common practice,” says the commercial manager of a pharmaceutical company.
He adds that offering these freebies, however, does not guarantee that doctors will prescribe their brands, and it is a form of marketing tool that other sectors are adopting as well. “About 95% of gifts are worth less than Rs 500. Therefore, it cannot be termed as a ‘bribe’ as such. It is done so that the doctor remembers a brand among 100 others which are all at the same price, ”defends the executive.
“Doctors are more reputation-building exercises – like getting help getting their papers published in journals or speaking at a prestigious conference. If a doctor takes time to come to the conference, they get a consulting fee,” says another executive. Usually reputable senior doctors or good speakers are chosen as speakers, but companies often bring a battery of doctors to these conferences.
For the defense, the industry says these are for knowledge acquisition and sharing, but the cases of doctors receiving high value items like laptops etc. are not uncommon.
Aisola says doctors are often named principal investigators in clinical trials or serve on committees for which they earn hefty fees.
Civil society organizations are thus campaigning for a statutory UCPMP.