Ramesh ShankarWednesday, November 2, 2022, 08:00 Hrs  [IST]

Unethical marketing practices by the pharmaceutical companies have been a major issue the country has been facing for a long time now. Though the DoP had come out with the Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCPMP) way back in June 2011 to arrest the unethical marketing practice of bribing of doctors by the pharma companies, it remained largely on paper as it was a voluntary code. After releasing the marketing code, the DoP had then stated that its implementation will be reviewed after six months and if it is found that it has not been implemented effectively by the pharma companies, the government would consider making it a statutory code. In a country like India where even the mandatory laws are very often violated rather than complying, the less said the better about the implementation of a voluntary code like UCPMP. But, instead of making it mandatory after six months, the government dragged its feet on the issue. Finally, after almost four years, the DoP came out with a revised UCPMP in 2015, which was also voluntary. As the code lacked penal provisions to deter the wrongdoers, a large section of the pharma companies continued to indulge in bribing the doctors. As voluntary compliance failed to materialize in the absence of any deterrence, the DoP finally decided to give the code some teeth. So, in September 2015, it came out with a plan to make the marketing code mandatory with legal backing and penal provisions by introducing it under the Essential Commodities (EC) Act, 1955. But, due to stiff resistance from the industry and industry associations, the government did not proceed further on the plan, and the issue is still entangled in the bureaucratic red-tapism.

The issue once again came to limelight in the wake of the recent allegation that a Bengaluru-based prominent pharmaceutical company has distributed freebies worth a whopping around Rs. 1,000 crore to medical professionals under the head ‘sales and promotion’ to promote a particular brand and the sales of this pain relief drug have seen skyrocketing during the time of Covid-19 pandemic. Earlier, as the issue lingered on, the Federation of Medical and Sales Representatives Association of India (FMRAI) had knocked at the doors of the Supreme Court seeking establishment of a statutory code of ethical marketing for the pharmaceutical industry with provisions for penal actions against violators. As the Apex court took a serious note on the arguments by the petitioners which took up the recent findings of the Income Tax Department regarding alleged distribution of Rs. 1,000 crore freebies to medical professionals, it asked the Central government to file its response on the matter. It is under this background, the Central government decided to form a five-member high-level committee headed by Indian government's policy think-tank NITI Aayog's member (Health) V K Paul to study a legal mechanism to regulate the marketing and promotional activities of the pharmaceutical companies in the country. That the government is attaching high priority to this issue is clear from the fact the committee has senior most officials as its members including secretary of the Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP) S Aparna, secretary of Ministry of Health and Family Welfare Rajesh Bhushan and chairman of Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) Nitin Gupta as members and a joint secretary (policy) from the DoP as its member secretary. The government has constituted this high-level committee to hammer out a legal mechanism to address the issue of pharmaceutical companies giving inducements for promoting their medicines and other healthcare products. Surely, the recent initiative by the Central government is welcome as a lasting solution to the issue of unethical marketing practices by pharma companies has been evading for quite some time.