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05.Code of Conduct

One in eight GPs unaware of Code of Conduct

Medicines Australia –– the body representing the pharmaceutical industry in Australia –– administers the Code of Conduct which sets the standard for the ethical marketing and promotion of medicines.

The Code sets out rules on pharmaceutical promotion in all forms, including the promotional material produced by drug companies (ads in electronic prescribing software packages, mailings, gifts and offers, for example), drug company reps, sponsorship (of patient groups, for example) and drug company involvement in educational events for healthcare professionals.

But our research found that one in eight GPs weren’t aware of the Code. And compared to its UK equivalent, the Code itself leaves a lot to be desired.

According to the UK’s code of practice, a rep shouldn’t visit a GP more than three times a year. And with many companies promoting products even this can add up. But Medicines Australia’s Code of Conduct is less specific. It simply says ‘Company representatives should ensure that the frequency, timing and duration of appointment, together with the manner in which they are made, are such as not to cause inconvenience to the healthcare professional.’

The UK code of practice also limits the number of mailings companies can send GPs about new drugs within six months of the drug’s launch, and within a year. The Australian Code covers the content of direct mail, but not the quantity.

Drug companies spend millions on events for doctors

Medicines Australia recently announced it was setting a ‘world-first in transparency’ by publishing the details of medical education events held or sponsored by its member companies. In just six months last year drug companies spent more than $30 million on over 14,000 events for doctors and other healthcare professionals.

Under the provisions of the Code lavish meals are banned and meetings ‘must be held in venues suitable for the attainment of the primary objective of enhancing medical knowledge’. But reports reveal that some drug companies are spending $100-plus-a-head wining and dining (and educating) GPs in swanky restaurants such as Jacques Reymond in Prahran, Stefano’s in Mildura, The Manse in North Adelaide and The Argo in South Yarra. There’s also concern about the independence of industry-sponsored seminars and the information doctors receive.

Companies found to have breached the Code face sanctions such as a fine (up to $200,000) or the printing of a corrective letter. Of the 20 complaints received and finalised in 2006/2007, 16 were fined to the tune of $695,000 –– that’s an average of just over $43,000 per fine.

CHOICE believes the Code of Conduct is ineffective, and Australia’s top consumer protection agency, the ACCC, shares our concerns. When it approved the current version of the code, Chairman Graeme Samuel said “it is unclear how effective [the Code] is in actually regulating drug companies’ conduct.”


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