LONDON -- GlaxoSmithKline will stop paying doctors for promoting its drugs and scrap prescription targets for its marketing staff -- a first for an industry battling scandals over its sales practices, and a challenge for its peers to follow suit.
Britain's biggest drugmaker also said Tuesday it would stop payments to health care professionals for attending medical conferences as it tries to persuade critics it is addressing conflicts of interest that could put commercial interests ahead of the best outcome for patients.
The move may force other companies to act, since the entire drugs industry has been under fire for aggressive marketing tactics in recent years.
"Where GSK leads we must hope that other companies will follow," Fiona Godlee, editor of the British Medical Journal and an influential campaigner against undue industry influence in medical practice, told Reuters.
"But there is a long way to go if we are to truly to extricate medicine from commercial influence. Doctors and their societies have been too ready to compromise themselves."
GlaxoSmithKline's (GSK) move comes amid a major bribery investigation in China, where police have accused it of funneling up to 3 billion yuan ($494 million) to travel agencies to facilitate bribes to boost its drug sales.
However, the company said the measures weren't directly related to its Chinese problems and were rather part of a broad effort to improve transparency.
In the United States, the industry's biggest market by far, %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%many companies have run into conflicts over improper sales tactics and GSK reached a record $3 billion settlement with the U.S. government last year over charges that it provided misleading information on certain drugs.
A number of other firms have taken some steps to clean up their marketing practices and companies are being forced to disclose payments to doctors under U.S. health care law. Similar laws requiring firms to make public the names of doctors they have paid will take effect in Europe from the start of 2016.
"This will undoubtedly change behavior and trigger a re-think of how some forms of continuing medical education are organized and funded," said Richard Bergstrom, director general of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations.
Shares in GSK, hit in recent months by its woes in China and a resulting fall in sales, slid 1.4 percent against a 0.3 percent drop on London's blue chip FTSE index.
Colin McLean, managing director at SVM Asset Management, who holds shares in drugmakers including Pfizer (PFE) but not GSK, said he would welcome other firms following GSK's lead. "Given the problems Glaxo had in China, it is important for investors to understand, at a deeper level, just how incentives work through an organization," he said.
AstraZeneca (AZN) said in 2011 it was scrapping payments for doctors to attend international congresses but others, until now, haven't followed suit and GSK's actions go further.
An AstraZeneca spokeswoman said on Tuesday it had tightened up practices in 2011 so that its actions couldn't be seen as an inducement for doctors to prescribe its products.
Officials at other major drug companies weren't immediately available to comment.
Tim Reed, head of Health Action International, an Amsterdam-based non-government organisation critical of Big Pharma, said the GSK move would increase the pressure on other companies.
"I think other companies will follow suit -- but one of the biggest problems is that the industry persists in regulating itself," he said. "The only way to properly control promotion is strong and enforced regulation by the state."
GSK's Chief Executive Officer Andrew Witty said in a statement that his company's actions were designed to ensure that patients' interests always came first.
"We recognise that we have an important role to play in providing doctors with information about our medicines, but this must be done clearly, transparently and without any perception of conflict of interest," he said.
The decision to stop payments to doctors for speaking about medicines during meetings with other prescribers marks a big shift for a global industry that has always relied heavily on the influence of experts in promoting products.
GSK said it aimed to implement this move and a related measure to end paying for doctors to attend medical conferences by the start of 2016.
The company currently spends some 50 million pounds ($82 million) a year on paying doctors to speak or attend conferences, according to estimates from industry sources.
The change in payments to GSK's sales representatives will be implemented faster, following a successful test-run in the United States, where payments have been decoupled from the number of prescriptions generated since 2011.
The policy of ending individual sales targets will now be rolled out globally. GSK said it planned to implement the new compensation system in all countries by early 2015.
Its U.S. "Patient First" program bases pay for commercial staff on a mix of qualitative measures and the overall business performance, rather than the number of prescriptions generated.
The shift is pragmatic to a certain extent, since many decisions about which drugs to use are now taken centrally by big insurers and governments, based on cost-effectiveness measurements, rather than by individual doctors.
Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics at the British Medical Association, said the approach made sense for patient care.
"It is pleasing to see a large pharmaceutical company like GlaxoSmithKline recognize that it can reduce the possibility of undue influence by rewarding employees for providing high-quality information and education for doctors rather than for their sales figures," she said.
GSK will still pay fees to doctors carrying out company-sponsored clinical research, advisory activities and market research, which it said were essential in providing insights on specific diseases.
11 Health Gimmicks You Should Stop Wasting Money On
GlaxoSmithKline to Stop Paying Doctors to Promote Drugs
Nearly 30 percent of Americans bought more natural foods in 2011 than the year before, according to a Rodale study. But what are we really paying more for?
There are no clear cut regulations regarding what foods can be called "natural," which means just about any company can slap that label on its packages, add a fancy "green" design and jack up the price.
Says Andrew Schrage of MoneyCrashers: "Before buying any food that is touted as being “all natural,” take a look at the ingredient list before you check out. Keep in mind that butter and salt are indeed natural ingredients. So stocking up on natural foods may not achieve anything other than increasing your grocery bill."
When it comes to ridiculous-looking toning shoes and clothing designed to help shed pounds faster, you might want to hold off.
Reebok has already paid $25 million to consumers for allegedly over-marketing its line of toning shoes' weight loss power. And the one study that seems to support the claim that tight-fitting threads help burn more calories only involved about 15 participants.
"I think there are much simpler and less expensive ways the average person can bump up calorie burn and build strength," says Shape.com's Liz Neporent. "For instance, interval training and hill work. These workouts certainly have the science behind them."
Coconut water may be nature's version of Gatorade but some brands have already caught fire for over-hyping its nutrient content.
Vita Coco agreed to settle a $10 million class-action lawsuit over an independent study that showed the drinks didn't pack near as many electrolytes as advertisements implied.
Some coconut water is also loaded with added sugar, which will do nothing to help your waistline. Instead, pick up your own young green coconuts on the cheap from an Asian produce market. Just crack them open with a cleaver and pop in a straw.
People really will do anything to shed pounds, even if it means injecting themselves with hormones made from another woman's placenta.
The FDA ordered companies to stop selling HCG (a protein made in the placenta and passed through pregnant woman's' urine) after it was used in conjunction with low-calorie diet regimens. A 40-day kit sells for $120, but the hormone has only been approved for use in fertility treatments.
Per the Mayo Clinic: "HCG is not approved for over-the-counter use, nor has it been proved to work for weight loss. Companies that sell over-the-counter HCG weight-loss products are breaking the law."
"What consumers need to know is that your body naturally detoxifies itself through our lungs, skin and kidneys," she said. "Sweat it out, breathe it out and eliminate. Eating a clean diet daily will give you the feeling you are looking forward to at the end of your depriving cleanse, so get started. Besides, cleanses are unnatural and typically based on eliminating food groups and or foods altogether."
Splenda just rolled out a new version of its popular sweetener -- this time with extra fiber -- but the idea that consumers should pay more for fake sugar that's been pumped with more fake ingredients is slightly irksome.
"Adding healthy components to unhealthy things just doesn’t make sense," says Batayneh. "What is 1 gram of fiber (or maybe 10 for those who over-consume artificial sweeteners) going to do for you when you should really be focusing on whole grains, beans, seeds, fruits and vegetables versus relying on your coffee for fiber? This small dose of fiber should not convince you to try it."
Batayneh calls this one of the worst weight-loss myths out there and another attempt to play on the low-carb fad sparked by the Atkin's diet.
"A gluten-free diet does not necessarily mean a low-carb diet," she says. "A person who eats gluten-free can ingest plenty of carbohydrates from gluten-free breads, pastas, cereals, and baked goods as well as vegetables, fruits, beans, and legumes."
Whether or not there are added health benefits to eating organic produce, it's a common misconception that they somehow come packed with less calories than their pesticide-laden brethren.
Even federal guidelines on what's certified organic aren't all that stringent and plenty of regular produce isn't "dirty" enough to warrant paying top dollar (as much as 150% more) for organic versions anyway.
The Environmental Works Group has an excellent chart detailing which non-organically grown produce is most "dirty" and and which is "clean."
"We've had waves of costly 'super juices' in the marketplace that were nothing more than fruit juice," says clinical nutritionist Stella Metsovas. "Testing chemical properties in a laboratory is completely different once the product is pasteurized. There is no possibility of processing a super-fruit to compete with the natural form (i.e.: a handful of berries)."
The acai berry's popularity in the U.S. spawned a new wave of consumer scams involving "free trial offers" for smoothies, juices and other products.