Thousands of Italian doctors named by police in Glaxo corruption case

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The Independent Online

"Medical tours" to the Caribbean, "scientific congresses" and "cultural retreats" among the ski slopes of the Dolomites and on the beaches of Sharm el-Sheikh were among the gambits used by the British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline to persuade thousands of Italian doctors to use the company's products, it was claimed this week.

Italian tax police, the Guardia di Finanza, said on Wednesday that an investigation they began last year had uncovered a huge industry of corruption in the firm, by which Glaxo spent ¤228m (£152m) over four years, shovelling cameras, stereo systems, computers, books, wines, gadgets and plain cash at more than 4,000 Italian doctors to keep them sweet and dissuade them from prescribing products from the firm's competitors.

It said the company "should be held responsible for corporate crime as its managers and other employees acted in the company's interests". It was one of the biggest investigations undertaken into a pharmaceutical multinational. Within the industry, it is said that similar practices are rife in many other European countries.

The tax police have handed their findings to prosecutors, and criminal proceedings are expected. Of the 4,713 people from all parts of Italy named, some 4,400 are doctors accused of receiving favours, while 270 are employees or former employees of the company, including 73 former directors, among them the former managing director of the Italian subsidiary, Kenneth di Pangrazio.

The tax police also published apparently incriminating e-mails uncovered during the investigation. In one, a cardiologist allegedly wrote to Glaxo asking for the company to provide medical equipment, considering its known "liberality", and offering in return to "guarantee for two years" a monopoly for the company in the prescription of a particular type of drug. "A good investment", a company director apparently noted on the e-mail, "because the cardiologist has on average 25 patient visits every day."

And, it was claimed, a hospital pharmacist, the wife of a noted surgeon, agreed to use Glaxo's products if in return it would buy 180 copies of her husband's book, at a total cost of ¤4,000. Some Italian doctors believe that the timing of the release of the tax police's report is suspicious, as the government is believed to be preparing a new law clamping down on the activities of the pharmaceutical industry in Italy. Giuseppe del Barone, president of FNOMCEO, the main doctors' organisation, criticised the authorities for "throwing mud at an entire category before the magistrates have finished their work".

Glaxo said it "has collaborated with the authorities since February 2003 to enable the investigation to proceed with maximum speed and efficiency".