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Abbott suspended from ABPI over sleaze

Published on 10/02/06 at 12:42pm

All expenses paid trips for doctors to see greyhound racing, visits to Wimbledon centre court and even a lap dancing club have landed pharmaceutical company Abbott in serious trouble, forcing the ABPI to temporarily suspend the company from its membership.

Abbott's suspension from the ABPI for six months is one of the stiffest penalties ever handed out by the ABPI and its watchdog the Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority, and signals a new crackdown on unethical behaviour.

The ruling has just been published in the PMCPA's latest Code of Practice Review, but the events in question took place during 2004, with a complaint not being made until mid-2005.

The PMCPA's investigation uncovered a catalogue of incidents involving misconduct and questionable behaviour, reaching up as far as the company's then general manager.

The general manager had asked one of his managers to invite a number of senior consultants to corporate hospitality events at Wimbledon, a social event with no educational content, and thus representing a breach of the code.

Two trips to a greyhound racing stadium in Manchester during the year for large numbers of healthcare professionals were also found to be serious breaches, with no record of what the meetings were about or who had attended.

A visit to a lap dancing club by two Abbott employees with a doctor was also found to have brought discredit on the industry, despite not being directly funded by the company.

Two further complaints were made, with one upheld. The incident involved two Abbott managers attending and paying the bill for a hospital staff Christmas party. The two managers were allegedly late arriving and 'intoxicated'.

The watchdogs panel said considered together, the incidents were very serious breaches of the Code. A subsequent review by the ABPI Board came to a similar conclusion and ruled that the company should be suspended from ABPI membership for six months  a very rarely used sanction and one of the strongest.

The ABPI board also ordered an external audit of the company's practices to be made in May 2006.  A previous audit of the company had been made in November 2005, and the Board said the second audit should establish whether the necessary changes had been made.

Abbott said that it recognised the seriousness of the rulings, and said that a small minority had been responsible for the misconduct, rather than a failing in the company's culture or processes.

The company has responded by changing the structure of one of its business units and reviewed its procedures for meetings.

Finally, a new UK general manager took over in December 2004, with two managers and one further employee linked to the events also having left the company.

The ruling was made in December, just ahead of the introduction of a new stricter Code of Conduct on 1 January 2006. The ABPI has pledged to police the code strictly, and Abbott's censure, though exceptional, is likely to send out a clear message to any company not following the spirit of the Code.

"The pharmaceutical industry strives to maintain the highest possible ethical standards in  all its dealing with healthcare professionals.  The breaches that have been identified are viewed in a very serious light, and this is reflected in the suspension  a sanction that we have not needed to apply for many years," said Vincent Lawton, President of the ABPI.

"However, it is reassuring to note that Abbott also recognises the seriousness of the breaches, and has taken action to prevent their recurrence," he concluded.

Another company, GlaxoSmithKline has been publicly reprimanded over a leavepiece claiming superiority of diabetes treatment Avandamet over sulphonylureas.  The leavepiece was found to be misleading, and the case was passed on to the Appeal Board, which said the company had previous breaches of the Code in the same therapy area.

It said the problems could indicate a 'cultural failure' in the company and referred the case to the ABPI Board, which said the case was an extremely serious matter and warranted a public remand.

The overall number of complaints made to the PMCPA in 2005 were actually down compared to the previous year, falling from 119 in 2004 to 101 last year, with complaints from healthcare professionals exceeding those from the industry for the second year running.

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