As per the reports, the Prime Minister in a meeting with the Pharma giants, Zydus Cadila, Torrent, Sun Pharma and Wockhardt has warned that they should strictly adhere to the Ethical Marketing Practices and not bribe the doctors. The Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance (IPA) has however denied any such discussion; “The meeting was called to discuss future roadmap for growth of the healthcare industry. The focus of discussion was on: Research and development, building innovation ecosystem, improving access to high quality medicine, and strengthening global competitiveness of the industry,” said a press statement issued by the IPA.

The Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCPMP) prohibits pharmaceutical companies from offering freebies to the doctors with an aim of getting business from them through prescription of their products. The Indian Medical Council (Professional Conduct, Etiquette & Ethics) Regulations, 2002 also asks the doctors to adhere to ethics and not accept freebies from the Pharmaceutical companies. This practice adds to the price of drugs and ultimately taxes on the pocket of poor patients who are already overburdened by the out of pocket expenditure on health.

It is well known that the Pharma companies (now even the corporate hospitals) sponsor nearly all the medical conferences or CMEs. They pay for the expenses including travel, accommodation and even registration fee for the participants.

The UCPMP has been in vogue since December 2014. When it was framed, it was said that it would be voluntary for six months and then reviewed after the inputs received. Several representations were given to the government by the Alliance of Doctors for Ethical Healthcare (ADEH) and Indian Doctors for Peace and Development (IDPD) to make it mandatory but government has not taken any steps and it remains voluntary even after more than five years. The Punjab Medical Council too was seized with the issue at one time and had given representations to the government in this regard but to no effect.

The Medical Council of India (MCI) in its meeting on 18th February 2014 exempted the “Professional Association of Doctors” from the purview of The Indian Medical Council (Professional Conduct, Etiquette & Ethics) Regulations, 2002. This gave an alibi to the pharma companies to pass on money to the medical associations for various expenditure which has been used for the benefit to the members in form of travel, accommodation, registration etc. to attend the meetings, conferences and CMEs orgnaised by the associations. However according to the clause 7.2 of the UCPMP “companies or their associations/representatives shall not extend any hospitality like hotel accommodation to healthcare practitioners and their family members under any pretext”. The implied meaning of this is that extending benefits to the doctors through associations too is not permissible. It would be naïve to expect from the companies to implement the code voluntarily. Global experience is also the same. The only way is to make UCPMP mandatory.

Through its circular No. 5/2012 [F. No. 225/142/2012-ITA.II], dated 1-8-2012, the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) had taken away exemption to the pharma companies on expenditure incurred on freebies. It also said that ‘the sum equivalent to value of freebees enjoyed by the aforesaid medical practitioner or professional associations is also taxable as business income or income from other sources as the case may be depending on the facts of each case’. But this decision was reversed by the Pune Bench of Bench of the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal.

Thus the issue involves making the UCPMP mandatory, reverse the decision of the MCI exempting the doctors associations from the code of medical ethics and also imposing the no tax emption on pharma companies as well as the doctors and their associations for the freebies.

The government’s stance from the media reports that the PM has warned the pharma companies against giving freebies sounds encouraging. But the denial by the IPA of any such thing creates doubts because the PMO has not commented on this statement of the IPA. The PMO must clarify its position over the denial by the IPA of any warning from the Prime Minister. It remains to be seen whether the UCPMP becomes reality. The skepticism arises from the fact that the Prime Minister’s Madison square event in 2014 which has been estimated to have cost US$ 1.5 million was sponsored mainly by the pharmaceutical giant the Sun Pharma.

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