Roche has been suspended from membership of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry for at least six months, in connection with serious breaches of the ABPI Code of Practice during 2003-5. They include breaches of Clause 2, which deals with actions likely to bring discredit on, or reduce confidence in, the pharmaceutical industry.

The suspension has arisen from a complaint made by a former Roche employee, referring to an article in the Financial Times of February 12 this year. The article alleged that Roche had sold large quantities of its prescription obesity drug Xenical (orlistat) to an operator of private diet clinics and also that Roche had agreed to provide £55,000 for the operator to purchase another clinic.

The Code of Practice Panel of the Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority, which operates the Code at arm’s length from the ABPI, ruled that this supply of Xenical was “inappropriate.” On appeal by Roche, the PMCPA Appeal Board upheld the finding, considering that the supply was possibly prejudicial to patient safety, and also that the proposed payment (part of which had been paid) was linked to the use of Xenical and therefore in breach of the Code.

Given the serious nature of the case, the Panel reported Roche to the Appeal Board, which decided that the company should be publicly reprimanded and reported to the ABPI Board of Management, with a recommendation that it be suspended from ABPI membership. The Board concurred and suspended Roche from membership for six months. Re-entry is conditional upon an audit of the company’s procedures proving satisfactory to the Board.

Roche says it has accepted the rulings and taken action to prevent their recurrence.

“The highest possible ethical standards are required by the pharmaceutical industry in all its activities. Breaches of the Code are viewed seriously and this is reflected by the suspension,” said ABPI president Chris Brinsmead.

Last month, the PMCPA had advertised serious breaches of the Code by Roche in the British Medical Journal and The Pharmaceutical Journal, after the firm voluntarily advised the PMCPA that it had advertised a prescription-only medicine to the public via a one-page article in In the Pink magazine in 2007.

As a result of the ad, Roche was ruled to have breached not only Clause 2 but also other clauses relating to failing to maintain a high standard, advertising a prescription-only medicine to the public and encouraging members of the public to ask their health professional to prescribe a specific prescription-only medicine.

The PMCPA advertises in the medical and pharmaceutical press brief details of all cases where companies are ruled in breach of Clause 2 of the Code, required to issue a corrective statement or are the subject of a public reprimand.