A story published recently on Crikey’s health blog, Croakey, described in some detail a cruise trip to Alaska organised by a pharmaceutical company for the benefit of a group of pharmacists.

The company which provided the trip was not a member of Medicines Australia. This is a significant point, but more on that in a moment.

According to the Croakey story, the pharmacists were invited to enjoy a “great tax-deductible holiday”. They would attend a couple of educational seminars, but those sessions would not interfere with the bevy of golf, yachting, fancy-dress parties and fireworks displays the organisers had planned. Attendees were charged a nominal, tax-deductible fee and were encouraged to bring their spouses.

In the context of all this largesse, the distinction between pharmaceutical companies which are members of Medicines Australia and those which are not is important.

The sort of activity chronicled in the Croakey blog would be absolutely prohibited by the strict Medicines Australia Code of Conduct, which sets the ethical standard for marketing and promotional practices by member companies. Under the Code, lavish hospitality is banned, personal gifts to healthcare professionals are banned and entertainment is banned.

The Code further stipulates, very clearly, that any hospitality provided by companies, either directly or by sponsorship, must be secondary to the educational purpose.

Any travel and related costs or expenses for family or traveling companions must not be paid for or subsidised.

The point here is that while marketing and promotional activity undertaken by Medicines Australia member companies must adhere to a rigorous Code of Conduct — and appropriately so — non-member companies have no such restriction placed upon them.

This is an absurd anomaly. There is no reason why appropriate standards of conduct should not be enforceable for all pharmaceutical companies — not just those who belong, of their own volition, to Medicines Australia.

It is entirely appropriate and legitimate for pharmaceutical companies to engage with healthcare professionals for the purpose of providing current, accurate, up-to-date information about medicines.

Indeed, pharmaceutical companies have an obligation to ensure that doctors understand how new medicines work, the circumstances under which they should be prescribed and, importantly, the circumstances under which they should not be prescribed.

It is equally appropriate that modest hospitality be provided during the course of these events — this is customary practice for business meetings or seminars in any sector.

On the other hand, the provision by pharmaceutical companies of junkets, cruises, and entertainment for healthcare professionals is completely indefensible.

There’s a strong case to be made for a level playing field here, and I have made that case to the Government on a number of occasions.

When it comes to engaging healthcare professionals, it is time that all pharmaceutical companies commit to the high ethical standards articulated in the Medicines Australia Code of Conduct.

Medicines Australia is the industry association for discovery-driven pharmaceutical companies.