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Merck in trouble for doctoring advice

Feb 3, 2006 | Financial Times

Merck, the US pharmaceuticals company, has been found in breach of the UK drug industry's code of conduct for modifying professional advice distributed to doctors treating high blood pressure, in a way that favoured one of its own drugs.

The Prescriptions Medicines Code of Practice Authority, the UK drug industry's self-regulatory arm, will next week rule against the company for changing guidelines compiled by the British Hypertension Society (BHS), a group of medical specialists.

The incident highlights the close links between pharmaceuticals companies and professional medical associations, which have come under growing scrutiny as part of a broader examination of potential conflicts of interest when drug companies market their products.

The probe was sparked by Des Spence, a Scottish doctor who runs No Free Lunch UK, a group of doctors that lobbies for greater transparency in the links between the medical profession and drug companies.

Mr Spence became concerned about information sponsored by Merck and widely distributed among doctors that described the so-called "ABCD algorithm" for drug treatment developed by the BHS.

The algorithm advises doctors which drugs to use to treat patients based on their age, ethnic background and reaction to different treatments. It recommends the first treatment of choice should generally be ACE Inhibitors, a class of cheap generic drugs.

However, Merck paid for and distributed thousands of cards, posters and computer mouse-mats for doctors for reference in their practices, in which the order and phrasing of the recommended drugs was switched to give greater prominence to its own more expensive patented drug Cozaar, which generated nearly $3bn in sales last year.

Professor Neil Poulter, BHS president at the time, said the "switch" by Merck was "a shame and an error". A non-medical employee of the BHS at the time had authorised the change at the company's suggestion.

Merck UK said it would not be appealing.

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