Govt might bar drugmakers’ freebies to doctors

New rules may allow inexpensive trinkets, such as a branded pen
New rules may allow inexpensive trinkets, such as a branded pen


Centre  working  on  defining  what  is  acceptable  as  a  gift  from pharma  firms

NEW DELHI : The government is tightening rules to bar drugmakers from offering expensive goodies to doctors, from all-expense-paid trips to conferences to watches, to encourage them to prescribe certain drugs, two government officials familiar with the development said.

Officials from the health ministry, department of pharmaceuticals and the National Medical Commission, among other departments, will define what is acceptable as a gift from pharma companies. For example, they may allow doctors to accept inexpensive trinkets, such as a company-branded pen, but ban paid hotel stays.

The money spent by drugmakers on marketing medicines to doctors has become the target of scrutiny after the Central Board of Direct Taxes alleged that Micro Labs, the maker of fever drug Dolo, spent 1,000 crore on gifts to doctors during the pandemic. The company dismissed the allegations as baseless and claimed it spent no more than 5-6 crore annually promoting Dolo.

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While rules against gifting doctors exist, they are often flouted. The latest move by the government is aimed at cutting financial ties between firms that make medicines and doctors who prescribe them.

“The government is exploring ways and means to create more deterrence among doctors, so they do not accept any freebies from pharma companies to promote any drug. A report is being prepared," one of the two officials said, requesting anonymity.

A uniform code of conduct for pharma companies on gifts to promote any drug is already in place but not enforced strictly. “Since 2015, we have Uniform Code for Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCPMP) to prevent pharmaceutical companies from unethical marketing practices. However, for medical professionals, we have the Indian Medical Council (Professional Conduct, Etiquette and Ethics) Regulations, 2002, which provides for a code of conduct for doctors in their relationship with pharmaceutical companies. Besides, the National Medical Council issued guidelines bar registered doctors and their families not to receive gifts, travel facilities, hospitality, cash or monetary grants, etc., from pharmaceutical companies. However, the level of deterrence seems to be very poor," the official said.

In 2021, the Federation of Medical and Sales Representatives Association of India filed a plea in the Supreme Court alleging unethical marketing practices by pharma firms.

“The federation mentioned in the appeal that the uniform code of conduct is not strong and should be made into an Act. We understand that mere availability of law is not going to deter anybody. Only the state medical councils can take action and keep a close watch on doctors doing such activities," the official said.

“Multiple states have regulations, and it is not defined in one place. So, it sometimes becomes difficult to keep an eye on such activities. However, this issue can be resolved when doctors start prescribing generic drugs to patients and not branded ones. An extensive awareness campaign to promote generic medicines is needed," a second official said, declining to be named.

A health ministry spokesperson did not respond to queries sent by Mint till press time.

Dr Rajeev Jayadevan, a former president of the Cochin Chapter of the Indian Medical Association, said the industry is allowed to distribute product name reminders such as pens. “Beyond this, expensive gifts and trips might be happening in small pockets," he said.

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