Glaxo sacks five over banned sales techniques: Drug company says swift action shows commitment to highest ethical standards

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GLAXO, Britain's biggest drug company, admitted yesterday that some of its staff had been using sales techniques banned by the industry's code of practice.

The group has sacked five employees following an investigation into the activities of its North-east sales force. The staff were dismissed for 'irregularities' concerning the handling of company funds and falsification of records.

The funds were used for activities in breach of the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry's code of practice. These included holding meetings or events with general practitioners with little or no medical content.

The company said its swift action in dismissing those responsible demonstrated that it was committed to the highest ethical standards. It said it 'absolutely refutes' the allegation that it condones or tolerates unethical conduct from its sales personnel.

Sean Lance, managing director of Glaxo Pharmaceuticals UK, said: 'We do not tolerate unethical or irregular behaviour and our actions to date demonstrate this.'

A spokesman for the company said the irregularities had been discovered as a result of normal monitoring techniques about six weeks ago. An investigation had been launched that had resulted in those concerned being dismissed, and was now closed. The company had no further inquiries into malpractice under way, he added.

He dismissed allegations in yesterday's Sunday Times to the effect that some senior managers were aware of the breaches of the code, and said claims that sales staff had 'budgets' of up to pounds 14,000 a year for hospitality were rubbish.

The allegations were made by the sacked employees, he said, pointing out that their ethical standards were 'not sufficiently professional' for them to continue working for the company.

The problems at Glaxo follow similar allegations about Fisons, another drug company. Last week it suspended one of its regional managers pending the outcome of an internal investigation, centred on the West Midlands region, into allegations that employees had tried to bribe doctors to use its products.

Fisons has admitted to running a scheme, now withdrawn and, it says, not authorised by senior management, involving patient treatment cards that could have led to cash payments to doctors of pounds 10 for each new patient prescribed Tilade, the group's asthma product. Fisons, which also faces allegations relating to lavish corporate hospitality and gifts, says it has yet to find evidence that any money changed hands.

Both allegations, if true, would be in breach of the code of practice established by the Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority, part of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry.

Both the Department of Health's Medicines Control Agency and the Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority have said they will look into the Fisons allegations.

The code says that only 'moderate' hospitality can be offered to doctors. Gifts have to be restricted to small items like pens or notepaper. However, even moderate hospitality will be outlawed by European Commission legislation due to come into force next year.

There is mounting concern about the way in which drugs are promoted to doctors. A recent study by a team of researchers at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast indicated that doctors were using aggressively marketed new drugs when proven treatments up to 30 times cheaper were available.

The Belfast team concluded that the medical profession had not instituted effective checks to ensure that the legitimate promotion of new products did not lead to inappropriate and wasteful use.