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Abbott suspended from ABPI after hospitality breach

Employees entertained doctors at lap dancing club, greyhound stadium and Wimbledon centre court

Abbott Laboratories is in hot water after employees of the company paid for doctors to visit lap dancing clubs, a greyhound stadium and Wimbledon centre court in one of the most serious breaches ever of the ABPI code of practice.

The scandal will be an embarrassment to the ABPI, which has been keen to show that it has adequate regulation in place to ensure drug promotion in the UK remains ethical.

The penalty meted out reflects the gravity with which the industry association views Abbott's misdemeanours. The firm has been suspended from ABPI membership for six months, with readmission subject to an audit in May to verify that the company has taken adequate remedial action.

The ruling by the ABPI Board of Management, which came in December before the new ABPI Code of Practice came into force, has just been published in the latest Code of Practice review. Abbott's suspension became effective from January 1.

After a tip-off by an `anonymous concerned member of the industry', an ABPI panel found that in January and September of 2004, Abbott employees inappropriately entertained groups of doctors at a Manchester greyhound stadium while races were taking place.

Abbott said the two trips had not been approved by head office as the cost had not exceeded £40 a head or £2,000 in total.

In another incident in February 2004, an Abbott manager and a company representative attended a lap dancing club with a doctor after a two-day medical workshop. The complainant alleged that the manager borrowed £1,000 from the representative to pay for the visit.

The ABPI also found a breach of its code in a third instance, when an Abbott manager invited senior London hospital consultants for a day of full hospitality at Wimbledon Centre Court in the summer of 2004.

ìThe pharmaceutical industry strives to maintain the highest possible ethical standards in all its dealing with healthcare professionals,î said Vincent Lawton, managing director at Merck, Sharp & Dohme and ABPI president. ìThe breaches that have been identified are viewed in a very serious light, and this is reflected in the suspension - a sanction that we have not needed to apply for many years.î

The last time the ABPI suspended a company from membership was in 1994, when two companies, Duphar and Fisons, fell foul of industry regulations.

In a statement, Abbott said it had a 'zero tolerance' policy towards any breach of the company's code of conduct.

ìThe allegations made during this case relate to the individual actions of a small number of employees in 2004,î said the company. ìAbbott conducted a thorough investigation and as a result, these employees either resigned or had their employment terminated.î

Last month the ABPI announced it had hired PR agency SantÈ Communications to promote the new Code of Practice, described as the toughest yet for pharmaceutical marketers by some observers.

More bad news for the industry has arrived in the form of serious allegations being made against Abbott, which have been aired in the national tabloid press. In an industrial tribunal in Reading, Julia Jeffers, an ex-Abbott sales rep, is claiming unfair dismissal and sex discrimination.

Jeffers alleged that her former line manager, Nick Panton, and former unit business manager, Clive Spiegler, not only sacked her because she knew about various instances of unethical behaviour including visits to brothels on company trips to Lisbon and Budapest but also that they failed to act when she complained that she was sexually harassed by a Birmingham hospital consultant.

Both Panton and Spiegler resigned from the company following a directive from Abbott's Chicago HQ, the tribunal heard.

Richard Hutchinson, defending Abbott in the case, said Jeffers, who sold HIV drugs, lost her job because of her poor performance.

The tribunal is expected to come to its decision within 28 days.

30th September 2008

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