A Danish pharmaceutical company behind popular new weight-loss drugs has made payments totalling €345,000 to Irish health professionals and organisations over the past three years.
Novo Nordisk, the company behind the much-touted Ozempic and Wegovy treatments for obesity and diabetes, describes the payments in support of medical education as a cornerstone of its support for healthcare professionals treating patients with serious chronic conditions.
In the UK, the pharmaceutical industry association has suspended Novo for two years over its marketing of another weight-loss drug, Saxenda, saying it breached the industry’s code of conduct. The company was accused of failing to make clear its involvement in training on weight-loss drugs offered to pharmacists on LinkedIn, according to the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry.
In response to the suspension, the Royal College of Physicians cut links with the firm and returned outstanding grants.
In Dublin, a spokeswoman for Novo Nordisk Ireland said it operates independently from the UK affiliate and has not used any of the marketing materials utilised there. “Novo Nordisk Ireland are committed to compliance with the Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association [IPHA] code of practice and maintaining the highest possible ethical standards required by the pharmaceutical industry,” she told The Irish Times.
Novo Nordisk has become one of the biggest companies in Europe thanks to soaring demand for Wegovy, used for chronic weight management.
Wegovy has been hailed as a blockbuster new obesity treatment worldwide though it is unlikely to be available in Ireland until next year. Administered long term by weekly injection, it contains the appetite suppressant semaglutide and is said to help patients lose up to 15 per cent of their body weight. Ozempic, a diabetes drug with a slightly lower dose of semaglutide, has become the darling of celebrity dieters.
Earlier this month, the Observer newspaper in the UK reported the company had paid £21.7 million to health organisations and professionals in three years as part of a campaign to boost its influence in the UK. It said those with links to the company went on to promote Wegovy in media interviews and regulatory submissions without always making their connections to the company clear.
Obesity affects more than a million people in Ireland and is a contributing factor to Type 2 diabetes, which affects about 200,000 people.
Novo Nordisk Ireland’s payments are listed in a “transfer of value” register maintained by IPHA, covering all member companies.
They include €163,159 paid to 189 named health professionals and an aggregate €41,341 paid to 64 others who exercised their right to anonymity. About half the payments were for registration fees and the other half for consultancy.
A further €140,420 was paid to 15 healthcare organisations as donations, grants or sponsorship.
The largest single payment to an individual was €14,570 to Carel Le Roux, an obesity specialist at St Vincent’s Healthcare Group and professor of experimental pathology at UCD.
Prof Le Roux told The Irish Times he serves on multiple drug company advisory boards, with his involvement publicly declared. “The good news is that the companies are learning from us about the disease of obesity and how it works. As a result, they are changing the way they approach it.
“They are not charities and they want to make a profit, but they want to address the problem and do the right thing.”
The treatment of obesity has changed radically in recent years, principally through a move away from an “eat less, move more” philosophy in favour of interventions such as bariatric surgery or drug treatment. Obesity should be treated as a disease and not a “lifestyle illness”, according to new Irish guidelines published last year.
Critics of pharmaceutical sector transparency claim payments by drug companies to doctors and other health professionals influence prescribing habits. Research suggests the receipt of payments from the pharma industry is associated with higher prescribing rates and costs and lower prescribing quality, according to Dr James Larkin, a researcher at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.
Dr Larkin said the transfers of value system for disclosing payments “vastly underestimates” the actual amount of support provided by industry, because some payments are not required to be disclosed and areas such as generic drugs and medical devices are not covered.