Ethical marketing and promotion of medicines

Time and again, the pharmaceutical industry has been accused of indulging in unethical practices concerning the marketing of medicines around the world.  These unethical marketing practices are, in fact, a major area of concern for the Government as well as patient groups. Amongst all unethical practices, the one that attracts the highest amount of scrutiny is the (questionable) interaction between pharmaceutical companies and healthcare practitioners (HCPs).

India is no exception. The Draft Pharmaceutical Policy, 2017 published by the Government itself makes a note that unethical practices employed by pharma companies are an area of major concern and that Doctors are lured to recommend a particular brand through all expenses paid trips often disguised as ‘educational conventions’. Unfortunately, the cost of such trips and other incentives gets added to the overhead cost of marketing of the medicine and is ultimately passed on to the patients.

There is no law at present that regulates the promotion and marketing of drugs (including medical devices) by companies before HCPs. Interactions between pharma companies and HCPs are regulated, at best, by way of restrictions cast on HCPs through their respective professional and ethical guidelines. For example, the Indian Medical Council (Professional Conduct, Etiquette and Ethics) Regulations, 2002 regulate the professional and ethical conduct of doctors practising modern medicine and prohibits doctors from accepting any kind of freebies (including travel and accommodation) from pharma and allied healthcare industry. Unfortunately, the principal legislation that regulates the pharma industry i.e. The Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940 does not say what pharma companies can and cannot say, or give or cannot give, to HCPs.

It is true that there are consumer protection legislations in India such as the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 (now the Consumer Protection Act, 2019) and the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisement) Act, 1954 and Rules, 1955 but these legislations regulate misleading advertisements, not unethical industry-HCP interaction.

It is, perhaps, not right to say that the government has turned a blind eye to this problem. In fact, in light of the increasing number of complaints of unethical practices adopted by pharma companies, the Department of Pharmaceuticals had introduced the Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCPMP) back in 2011 (later revised in 2014). The intent behind UCPMP code was to guide the pharma industry in its interaction with HCPs. However, the voluntary nature of UCPMP has relegated its own status to that of a “non-binding guideline”.

However, not all is lost. There is no dearth of pharma companies who are proudly ethical in their dealings with HCPs. In fact, most pharma MNCs have put in place exhaustive internal guidelines and robust internal systems which guide interactions of their medical representatives/marketing personnel with HCPs.  Interestingly, HCPs also seem to value such ethical behaviour. It is obvious that, at the end of the day, a HCP will prescribe medicines from only those pharma companies whose quality he or she trusts.

It is quite likely that the Indian government may decide to give legal teeth to UCPMP and make it binding. After all, the UCPMP is the nearest Indian equivalent to the US Physicians Payment Sunshine Act that we have. Interestingly, the enforcement of the Sunshine Act by US Authorities have resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in fines for some pharma companies.

There is no doubt that making UCPMP into a law would certainly help to curb the rampant quid-pro-quo arrangements that exist today between pharma companies and HCPs. More so, those companies which currently engage in unethical practices will be forced to re-evaluate their sales and marketing strategies and become compliant, or else they will have to face legal consequences.  

In the meanwhile, at least those companies who have achieved leadership positions in India’s pharma industry may lead by example and assume voluntary responsibility to follow UCPMP in text and spirit. The pharma industry associations would also do much good if they could adopt the UCPMP and direct their members to ensure compliance with the provisions of UCPMP at all costs. Such proactiveness will go a long way in instilling a sense of confidence amongst the Government and patients groups. And if that happens, needless to say,  the heavily regulated industry that is pharma industry will have one less regulation to worry about.

The views are personal.

Anil Upadhyay