The updated Uniform Code for Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCPMP) 2024 lacks the “teeth” to stop unethical marketing practices by drug companies, says the Federation of Medical and Sales Representatives Association of India (FMRAI), the organisation that had initially approached the Supreme Court, calling for an enforceable legal code.

The updated Code provides for complaints made by an individual to be escalated from an industry-centric ethical committee to an apex committee headed by the Secretary of the Department of Pharmaceuticals. But it is not clear how a pharmaceutical company running foul of the guidelines would be penalised, FMRAI general secretary Santanu Chatterjee told businessline, adding that the Code lacked teeth to penalise the unethical practice of “paying for prescriptions”.

Public health voices have also expressed concerns on the industry, in a sense, sitting in judgement on itself.

Another challenge in implementation is that the issue falls between two different ministries, said Chatterjee, echoing a concern pointed out by other industry-watchers. The UCPMP is issued by the DoP, under the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers, while much of the activity of the pharmaceutical industry in terms of research, manufacturing and marketing approvals etc, for its medicines, comes under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, as does the governance of the medical profession. Both Ministries, though, have the same person helming it as Minister, Mansukh Mandaviya.

The Code does have guardrails in place to restrain corrupt practices, in terms of making top management accountable and calling for audit trails of permissible brand reminders etc given to doctors. But an industry consultant pointed out, complaints made by individuals to the different committees (on the breach of the Code) should be anonymised. Chatterjee agreed, adding that several times complaints are from industry-insiders, from individuals who are witness to corrupt practices, and making a complaint could be life-threatening.

The FMRAI’s case is in Court, and Chatterjee is hopeful now that the Centre has issued the updated UCPMP, the case would come up for hearing. In fact, it was at one of the earlier hearings of this case, mid-2022, the popular paracetamol Dolo was catapulted into public memory, when it was mentioned in the context of the Centre’s allegation that the company had given doctors freebies to get the drug prescribed. The company had, however, said, its drug was legitimate, approved by the drug regulatory authority, and it was under the Centre’s price control regime.