GlaxoSmithKline has been accused of bribing doctors to prescribe its asthma medicines in Poland, in the latest in a string of scandals to hit the British pharmaceuticals giant.
The accusations, which featured in a BBC Panorama programme last night, come as GSK is already grappling with claims of corruption in China and Iraq.
Former sales rep Jarek Wisniewski told the programme makers that doctors were paid to promote Seretide, GSK’s asthma drug. Officially, the money was meant to be spent on educating patients about asthma, but the reality, he claimed, was that the payments were camouflaged bribes to encourage doctors to prescribe more Seretide.
Accusations: GlaxoSmithKline has been hit by a series of scandals
The transactions, which took place in 2011, are a blow to GSK’s chief executive Sir Andrew Witty, who took the helm in 2008.
He promised a fresh start for the company, which had been embroiled in long running court actions in the US over its conduct.
GSK agreed to pay a record $3billion (£1.9billion) in 2012 to settle US charges of marketing abuses, selective use of trial data and promoting drugs for uses for which they were not intended, such as one sales rep describing an antidepressant as a ‘happy, horny, skinny pill’.
At that time, Witty said the company had learnt from its mistakes and said that since he became chief executive the company wanted to create a culture that ‘put patients first’ and to display ‘integrity in everything we do’. He was knighted in 2012 for services to the economy and the UK pharmaceuticals industry. Despite his efforts to make the company whiter than white, GSK has run into trouble in China, where it dismissed a small number of staff for breaching expenses rules. It is under investigation by the Beijing authorities over claims it bribed doctors with money and hospitality to induce them to prescribe its drugs. The firm is also investigating alleged bribery by its employees in Iraq, where it has a small operation. A spokesman said it had so far uncovered no evidence of wrongdoing.
GSK said it has investigated the Polish claims and that it found evidence of ‘inappropriate communication in contravention of GSK policy by a single employee.’ It added that the person concerned had been reprimanded and disciplined.
The Polish authorities are conducting their own investigations and are understood to have charged a number of doctors and a GSK employee. The company admitted the drugs industry needed to ‘modernise’ its dealings with doctors, in order ‘to ensure patients’ interests are always put first and to eliminate even a perception of a conflict of interest’.
But GSK, whose shares dipped 9p to 1,543p yesterday, is not the only global pharmaceutical giant to fall foul of a perception that the industry is guilty of putting profits before the wellbeing of patients.
Japanese company Takeda and Eli Lilly of the US were recently ordered by a US court to pay a record $9billion in damages for concealing evidence of a possible link between their Actos diabetes medicine and bladder cancer.
GSK says it is making ‘fundamental changes’ to its business including publishing clinical trial data, whether positive or negative, and changing how it rewards its sales reps. It is also stopping payments to doctors to speak on its behalf and for attending medical conferences. Unlike some rivals, it discloses all disciplinary actions against staff each year. In 2013, 375 people were dismissed or agreed to leave, 48 of them because of violations linked to sales and marketing practices. A total of 161 GSK staff were disciplined for sales and marketing misbehaviour, including those who left the group. These are similar to figures published by rivals Novartis, Roche and Astra Zeneca.