When I give lectures to GPs at educational meetings sponsored by Australia’s independent National Prescribing Service, these tend to be in relatively modest venues, accompanied by adequate but inexpensive meals.

In short, nothing like the dinner that GlaxoSmithKline Australia provided on 16 April, 2007, to some 100 GPs in the salubrious surrounds of the Silks Restaurant at Crown Casino. Some were flown from interstate to hear an international expert talk about asthma management and were put up at the five-star Crown Towers.

It seemed obvious to me, when I heard about the dinner, that it breached the pharmaceutical industry’s self-regulatory code of conduct covering interactions with doctors. So, the next day, I put in a complaint. I argued that the venue and the $90 per head dinner provided by GSK breached Section 10.2 of Medicines Australia Code of Conduct, which states:

The venue and location at which a company provides hospitality to healthcare professionals must be conducive to education and learning and must not be chosen for its leisure or recreational facilities. Meals provided by companies at an educational meeting should not be extravagant or exceed standards which would meet professional and community scrutiny.

I was recently notified that the MA’s code committee judged there had been no breach of the code. The minutes of the committee’s meeting last month noted that some members were concerned that selecting a venue associated with, or next to a casino, created a perception that healthcare professionals were being provided with entertainment and the venue was inappropriate for an educational event.

Others were of the view that the Crown casino complex provided purpose-designed conference and meeting facilities used by various organisations throughout the year. All agreed that, while some members of the general public may consider Silks to be a prestigious venue, the education provided was of an appropriate quality, the hospitality was not extravagant and the venue was conducive to learning and education.

On this basis, by unanimous decision, no breach of Section 10.2 of the code was found. The minutes (which will ultimately be published on MA’s web site) conveniently left out the cost of the GSK dinner and the much lesser cost of the NPS functions that I contrasted it with.

Presumably, these details were eliminated from the minutes for the same reason that MA sought a review of the “condition” imposed by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission on the 15th edition of the code. The ACCC “condition” was meant to provide a greater level of transparency about the cost and hospitality of drug company events.

Twelve months later, we are still awaiting a decision by the Australian Competition Tribunal. Meanwhile, despite concerns about the increasing cost and sustainability of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, there is still little transparency about drug companies’ influence on the pens of doctors that write the ‘scripts.

Tomorrow: Ending the affair between medicine and big pharma