Bribery by GSK China was coordinated at company level: Xinhua

SHANGHAI (REUTERS) - A Chinese police investigation into drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline has discovered that alleged bribery of doctors in China was coordinated by the British company and was not the work of individual employees, state media reported on Tuesday.

Police in July detained four senior Chinese executives at GSK over allegations the company funnelled up to 3 billion yuan (S$ 626 million) to travel agencies to facilitate bribes to doctors and officials to boost the sale of its medicines.

"It is becoming clear that it is organised by GSK China rather than ... sales people's individual behaviour," the official Xinhua news agency reported.

GSK officials could not be reached for comment.

The company has said some of its senior Chinese executives appear to have broken the law, and that it has zero tolerance for bribery.

The GSK investigation is one of several into China's pharmaceutical sector.

Others have focused on how drugmakers price their medicines in the world's second-largest economy.

Xinhua quoted Huang Hong, general manager for GSK's business operations in China and one of the detained executives, as saying the company had set goals for annual sales growth as high as 25 per cent.

That rate was 7 to 8 percentage points above the average growth rate for the industry, Huang said.

GSK implemented salary policies based on sales volumes and such goals could not be achieved without "dubious corporate behaviour", Huang said.

Official media routinely get access to detainees in China.

Other detained GSK executives have been interviewed on state TV.

China accounts for just 3.5 per cent of GSK's global drug sales but demand is growing fast - up 17 per cent last year - and the company is investing heavily, with more than 7,000 staff in China, as well as five factories and a research centre.

Guo Jianhua, head of recruitment at GSK China, was quoted by the official People's Daily newspaper as saying the company had turned a blind eye to illegal behaviour.

"When the problems were exposed, the company pushed all responsibilities to individual employees," Guo said.

It was unclear which problems Guo was referring to or if he was one of the detained executives.

Corruption in China's pharmaceutical industry is widespread, fuelled in part by low base salaries for doctors at the country's 13,500 public hospitals.

Industry executives say ties to doctors at hospitals are key to sales, with pharmaceutical companies as well as medical device makers often sponsoring research conferences to win their favour.

The People's Daily quoted Huang as saying GSK had set up a special team dedicated to maintaining relationships with key hospital officials, with an annual budget of nearly 10 million yuan.

Since the GSK scandal broke, whistleblowers from other foreign drugmakers have come forward to make accusations of bribery against their companies in China.

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