Merck Sharp & Dohme has been suspended for a minimum of three months from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, following “serious breaches” of its much-debated Code of Practice.

An investigation into MSD’s conduct was sparked by a complaint from a former sales representative at the firm, who took issue with the process by which a nurse audit disease management programme was offered to GPs, a service which was subsequently found by the Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority to be linked to the promotion of a particular drug.

The arrangements were deemed “totally unacceptable,” by the PMCPA, and the ABPI agreed, ruling that MSD had breached the clause of its Code regarding “actions likely to bring discredit on, or reduce confidence in, the pharmaceutical industry.”

This is the second time the company has come under fire for its conduct in recent weeks. Previous to its suspension, MSD was publicly berated by APBI via adverts in the British Medical Journal and the Pharmaceutical Journal (week ending September 22) for entertaining health professionals and their spouses at a meeting “with no clear educational content in an unsuitable venue.”

An anonymous complaint was made to the ABPI over the meeting, which was arranged by a representative from MSD and took place in a Chinese restaurant, alleging that a large portion of the GP’s partners in attendance had nothing to do with the medical profession, and that the meeting itself held no medical educational content.

As a result, MSD was ruled in breach for: bringing discredit upon, and reducing confidence in, the pharmaceutical industry; failing to maintain high standards; and providing inappropriate hospitality to health professionals (and their spouses) that was not secondary to the main purpose of the meeting in a venue that was not suitable for an educational/scientific meeting.

MSD has held it hands up to the charges, saying in a statement that the audit programme was in brach of the Code and that the investigation had “highlighted the need for some specific internal process improvements.”

Clamping down

The move comes under the ABPI’s renewed drive to clamp down on inappropriate conduct in the industry. Earlier this year, US drug group Abbott was kicked out of the organisation for six months for failing to abide by its Code.

Industry observers scoff at the severity of such a punishment, and analyst Gustav Ando of Global Insight said that all Merck would miss out on is "a quarterly Big Pharma luncheon at a posh London restaurant and a few conference networking opportunities, [and] perhaps be temporarily sidelined from lobbying the British government for less pharma regulation."

But the ABPI maintains that, with the pharmaceutical industry struggling to gain a better reputation, 'naming and shaming' is the most effective sanction available to it.