GONE are the days when companies could offer doctors a free trip for their spouses to accompany them to a medical congress, or lavish expensive gifts on them to get them to push their products, say the companies behind a local drive to get the medical industry to self-regulate.
Earlier this week, the medical industry launched a Marketing Code Authority, a development that the sector says will lead to more ethical advertising and promotion of medicines, devices and laboratory tests.
"Self-regulation is important because we are accepting we have an ethical responsibility … to protect the patient," says Steve Spiller, outgoing interim chairman of the Marketing Code Authority,
Patients were placed at risk when they or their healthcare providers were inappropriately influenced or ill-advised by companies about the benefits and risks of their products.
The development is broadly in line with initiatives in countries such as the UK, which has a code of marketing practice for prescription medicines.
The Marketing Code Authority counts among its members eight industry associations, which cover innovative and generic medicines, devices, diagnostic tests and veterinary products.
The authority will enforce a marketing code that spells out the dos and don’ts for the industry, including stiff penalties for offenders. Companies that transgress the code can be publicly named and shamed, and face fines of "hundreds of thousands of rand", Mr Spiller said.
Innovative Medicines South Africa (Imsa) executive director Val Beaumont said the drive to improve the marketing of medicines was not intended to regulate doctors, but the pharmaceutical industry hoped the professional organisations representing doctors, nurses and pharmacists would harmonise their oversight work with that of the Marketing Code Authority.
She said the authority had asked the Department of Health to assist it by imposing the ultimate penalty of deregistering offending products if other measures failed. Medicines can only be sold in SA after they have been approved by the Medicines Control Council (MCC).
MCC registrar Mandisa Hela said the department was "excited" about the launch of the Marketing Code Authority.
"We believe it is important that the marketing of medical products is done ethically. We believe self-regulation works if parties are committed to it."
The groups that have signed up to the Marketing Code Authority include: Imsa; the National Association of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers; Pharmaceuticals Made in South Africa; the Pharmaceutical Industry Association of South Africa; the South African Animal Health Association; the South African Laboratory and Diagnostics Association; the South African Medical Device Industry Association; and the Self Medication Manufacturers Association of South Africa.
Notable by its absence is the Health Products Association (HPA), a trade association for companies selling complementary medicines.
Ms Hela said complementary medicines could not be included because they were unregulated.
HPA vice-president Bruce Dennison said his organisation had its own marketing code, which was expected to be presented to the Advertising Standards Authority’s annual meeting.