Swiss drugmaker Roche has been publicly reprimanded by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry for failing to provide accurate information for an investigation into a complaint made in a newspaper article on the firm’s star cancer drug Herceptin.

The article, called The selling of a wonder drug and published on March 29 in The Guardian, criticised Roche’s promotion of Herceptin, alleging that the firm, or its PR representatives, had tried to pay a patient to take part in a marketing campaign for the drug.

It claimed that, during a conversation between a breast cancer patient and a spokeswoman for Roche, the spokeswoman offered the patient potential funding for the drug or fees for appearances at seminars. But Roche denied that it or its agency had offered any such financial incentives and, on the basis of insufficient evidence in support of the complaint, the ABPI’s Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority ruled no breach of the Code.

The article also claimed that Roche had paid journalists £250 plus dinner in an expensive restaurant for their opinions on how to best get stories into the media about the use of Herceptin to treat cancer that had spread to the bones. But Roche stated that the aim of the meeting was not to get journalists to support a public campaign for Herceptin, but to use them in an advisory capacity, to help the company understand more about what journalists’ needs are and how best to provide the right information.

The panel ruled that, although the accounts of the meeting differ, Roche had not provided the journalists with any information to be published, and attendees had been asked to sign confidentiality agreements. Based on the evidence, it found that the company had not been advertising prescription medicines to the general public and so again ruled that the Code had not been breached.

Human error

The journalist behind the article did not appeal the ABPI’s decision, but stated that, contrary to Roche’s statement, she had not been asked to sign any confidentiality agreement. Roche subsequently discovered that this was indeed the case, and that none of the journalists present at the meeting has signed any such clause. But a spokesperson for Roche stressed to PharmaTimes UK news that this oversight was purely because of a human administration error.

The matter was passed to an appeal board, which noted that, although the Code did not require the signing of confidentiality agreements at such meetings, it was “extremely concerned” that Roche had initially stated that such a clause had been signed and, thereby, had been breached by the journalist in question. Consequently, it ordered an audit of the company’s procedures in relation to the Code, and decided to publicly reprimand the firm, via adverts in the medical and pharmaceutical press.

“Whilst this misinformation would not have changed the outcome of the case, we accept our reprimand and will continue to uphold the highest standards in our consistent adherence to the Code of Practice,” Roche said in a statement.