GSK’s fraud shows need for strict pharmaceutical regulation

This week it was announced that the major pharmaceutical GlaxoSmithKline will be fined $3 billion for fraud.  This is the company that states that their mission is “to improve the quality of human life by enabling people to do more, feel better and live longer”.  From the shocking case in theUS, however, it seems that sometimes it is about making as much money as possible, in any way possible.

The pharmaceutical industry should be there to research and develop new treatments, not to promote prescription drug use, influence health policy or put patients at risk. But, like any other profit-driven industry, pharmaceutical companies will try their hardest to further their position.  Health must always be protected from vested interests, and it is our job as policy makers to make sure we have the right framework in place to do this.  Unfortunately the current government is neglecting this responsibility.  Andrew Lansley’s unwise decision to allow the food and drink industry a big say over nutrition policy is a prime example of this.

The good news is that, in many ways, pharmaceutical regulation is much better in Europe than it is in theUS, where this fraud was carried out.  Direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs is permitted in the States – something that is thankfully banned here in the EU.

However, the powerful pharmaceutical lobby in Brussels is trying to change that, and when the European Commission came forward with a new proposal in 2008 on ‘Information to Patients’, many MEPs were shocked to see that it would provide loopholes for companies to advertise their drugs by providing ‘information’ to consumers and healthcare professionals.  The Parliament voted to completely amend the proposed law, deleting these provisions, and the Commission pulled the plug.  We’re now waiting to start work on new proposals, hopefully this time for the benefit of patients rather than companies.

Of course the pharmaceutical industry is a very important one, especially in theUK.  Not only do they develop new treatments for the many health challenges that we face, but they provide thousands of good jobs, and we want to encourage the beneficial aspects of what the industry can provide.  When we revise the European rules on clinical trials later this year I will be making sure that we are nurturing research to find new and better treatments by cutting unnecessary bureaucracy, without compromising the strict safety standards for the patients taking part in the trials.  It is particularly important that the rules better enable cross border trials with our EU partners, especially for rare diseases where the patient pool in theUKis just not large enough.  The legislation should not only benefit big pharmaceutical companies, but also university researchers and medical research charities.

Pharmaceutical companies want regulatory changes like this for the good of their industry.  In return we need those companies to act responsibly, and respect the boundaries that are set for them.  Just like the financial sector, the other big industry that has let us down, we need guarantees that these appalling breaches of the law will not happen again.

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