A British Medical Journal (BMJ) investigation featuring data analysis from Dr. Piotr Ozieranski at the University of Bath and Dr. Shai Mulinari from Lund University, Sweden reveals processing times for complaints against drug companies suspected of having breached their industry code of practice have more than tripled in a nearly two-decade period.

The data reveals that the average processing time of a complaint more than tripled between 2004-2021, from less than three months to more than 8.5 months. Numerous complaints have taken more than a year to resolve. The industry’s trade body, the [Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry[(https://www.abpi.org.uk/) (ABPI), has now raised fees related to these complaints by more than 40% in order to tackle the backlog.

In a joint statement, Dr. Piotr Ozieranski from the Department of Social & Policy Sciences and Dr. Shai Mulinari said: “It's positive that the ABPI has recognized that it takes far too long to process many complaints against drug companies. But it is difficult to see how a minimal real-terms uplift in the value of penalties could make them a sufficient deterrent.”

Complaints against ABPI members and non-members that have ratified the ABPI code of practice are dealt with by the arms-length body, The Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority (PMCPA), the authors explain. For example, Novo Nordisk, the Danish drug giant, is currently suspended from the ABPI until 2025 for sponsoring weight loss programs that promoted its products.

Commenting on the delays, Susan Bewley, former chair of HealthSense-UK, said: "Matters have gone adrift over the past two decades if it now takes over three times as long to process complaints. It's a privilege for an industrial sector to have 'light-touch' self-regulation and … mark their own homework.”

In correspondence seen by The BMJ, an ABPI executive said the hike in the charges would ‘partly’ support the PMCPA to reduce long processing times.

“In recent years, there has been an increase in both the number and complexity of complaints, which has unfortunately caused some cases to take longer to resolve than we want,” said Alex Fell, director of the PMCPA. “Addressing this is our highest priority,” he added.

The investigation was funded by the BMJ Investigations Unit