One of the world's largest drug companies has been disciplined by the industry's UK watchdog after admitting that its staff entertained doctors to greyhound racing, lapdancing and Centre Court tickets at Wimbledon.
The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Authority (ABPI) ruled that the scale of the hospitality to doctors who might be influenced to prescribe Abbott Laboratories' drugs breached its code of practice. It suspended the company, which made $3.4bn (£2bn) profit last year on worldwide sales of $22.3bn, from its board of management for six months.
An anonymous whistleblower triggered the ABPI investigation when he complained that drug reps had taken 27 doctors to the greyhound track in Manchester in January 2004 and 36 others in September. He also complained that two Abbott employees had taken a senior doctor to a lapdancing club, where one of them, a senior manager, borrowed £1,000 for the evening out from the other, a rep.
Abbott, which makes drugs and testing equipment for cancer, diabetes, HIV and pain management, said the employees involved had either left the company or been sacked. The greyhound racing outings had not been approved by head office, it said, because the cost had not exceeded £40 a head or £2,000 in total.
But the authority said Abbott was "unable to provide a full picture of what had occurred at these meetings". It added: "The panel considered it highly likely that the meetings were mainly of a social or sporting nature which was unacceptable under the code." The code of practice states that prescribing doctors can only be entertained in the context of educational events - such as lectures or workshops on the use of the company's drugs - and that the scale of the hospitality must be proportionate and the location appropriate.
The lapdancing visit took place in January 2004 after a workshop. After dinner, one of Abbott's managers and a rep who had been manning a stand took a hospital doctor out for the evening. The complainant "stated that the manager borrowed £1,000 from the local representative towards the evening, telling him he would be fully reimbursed. However this never materialised and he was still waiting for his money," the ABPI account of the investigation said.
Abbott argued that the two employees had entertained the doctor in their own time and at their own expense. But the panel said it breached the code because a potential customer was involved.
The panel also ruled that Abbott had broken the rules by inviting senior consultants from London hospitals to Wimbledon in the summer of 2004 and providing them with Centre Court tickets and "full hospitality". It was also censured for paying a bill for almost £800 for Christmas lunch for 15 hospital staff in December.
Abbott said its understanding of what was acceptable in terms of corporate hospitality had changed after a ruling against another drug company, Takeda, was published a year ago. It said it had a "zero tolerance policy" for breaches. The allegations related to "a small number of employees" who had resigned or had their employment terminated.
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