No freebies for docs from Jan 1

Doling out freebies, cruise tickets, paid vacations and sponsorships to educational conferences and seminars for doctors by pharmaceutical companies has been banned from January.

The government has woken up belatedly to curb unethical marketing practices of pharma companies by spelling out a uniform code of conduct for the industry. The code will be voluntary to start with, and kicks in from January 1. It will be reviewed after six months; if not implemented "effectively", the government will "consider"' making it mandatory, sources told TOI.

At present, the pharma industry follows a "self-regulatory'' code that curbs unethical sales promotion and marketing expenses, bans personal gifts, and all-expenses paid junkets for doctors and their families, but there have been several instances where companies have violated the code, industry experts say. They say the code exists only on paper as companies try to influence prescriptions through several ways.

This is the first time in years that the code has been finalized by the government, as earlier attempts to do so got mired in bureaucratic red tape.

Concerned with the increase in unethical marketing practices and prescription drug promotions by pharma companies, the government had first decided to ban these through a uniform code in 2008-2009, but the pharma associations did not agree to it.

When contacted, Indian Drug Manufacturers Association secretary general Daara Patel said, "The code seems to be strict. We are in consultations with the government. If we cannot educate about a particular medicine or disseminate information, how will doctors know about it?"

Industry body IDMA, representing certain domestic companies and OPPI, which represents MNCs, have their own "self-regulatory'' codes in place, drawn up a couple of years back, and revised again in 2013.

Industry experts say that the government's Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices has been modelled on the Medical Council of India (MCI) guidelines for doctors and healthcare professionals, which were further tightened in 2012.

The code - a copy of which is available with the TOI-talks about banning gifts, hospitality, medical samples, medical grants, and clarifies the relationship with healthcare professionals. Regarding gifts, it 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 pharma company, or any of it agents including retailers, distributors or wholesalers".

It says "in any seminar, conference or meeting organized by a pharma company for promoting a drug or disseminating information, if a medical practitioner participates as a delegate, it will be on his/her own cost."

It further says that gifts for the personal benefit of healthcare professionals and family members (both immediate and extended) such as tickets to entertainment events are also not to be offered or provided by pharma companies, nor cash or monetary grants for individual purposes. Hospitality should also not be extended to any doctor or their family members.

Referring to the earlier communication to industry associations sent out over two years back in March 2012, the department of pharmaceuticals says in the letter that the Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices has been finalized after inputs by various stakeholders, and would be again reviewed six months after its implementation from January 1, 2015.

The industry associations have to upload the Uniform Code on their websites and will be responsible for informing its members, and the government in case of violations.

The code also adds that "where there is any item missing, the code of MCI as per the Indian Medical Council (Professional Conduct, Etiquette and Ethics) Regulation, 2002 as amended from time to time, will prevail''.

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