If you thought the government would crack the whip on pharmaceutical companies offering freebies to doctors for prescribing their products, think again. The department of pharmaceuticals has indeed taken note of the dubious practices reported by TOI on December 15, but in a surprisingly mild, almost apologetic tone.

Joint secretary Devendra Chaudhury wrote to the various associations of drug manufacturers on December 18 citing the TOI report, but the letter suggests he would be "grateful" if the associations acted on suggestions made by the department.

The department's secretary had earlier held a meeting of the various pharma associations in Mumbai on December 16 in which he made several suggestions to the industry, the letter points out.

The mild tone is despite the fact that the December 18 letter admits: "The allegations cannot be in any way treated as ethical and something that could be endorsed by society in general. This also puts the pharma industry in a bad light since the enhanced promotional expenditure of the pharmaceutical companies result in enhanced market price of the drugs, which has to be borne by the consumer."

Yet, it says the department would be "grateful if you (pharma associations) could kindly take action" on its suggestions and also take steps to "prevent such perception in the mind of the public and other bodies to obviate misuse of promotional expenditure" and to kindly "prevent allegations as well as media reports on this subject as have appeared".

The joint secretary says in the letter that "the matter being extremely sensitive and of great public importance I am constrained to write to you". With such a mild and apologetic tone from the government it is anyone's guess whether the pharma industry would feel the need to take any action.

Both the Organisation of Pharmaceutical Associations of India (OPPI) and the Indian Drug Manufacturers Association (IDMA) had released their own codes of conduct at the beginning of 2007. However, there is no single code applicable to all drug manufacturers, a fact that the letter points out. But again, this is followed up by a gentle nudge: "You may like to consider having such a code for your members".

The OPPI and IDMA codes also have detailed procedures for filing of complaints and these associations claim that they take action against companies found to indulge in unethical marketing practices. However, the government has sought no details of complaints received by them or of what action was taken on these complaints.