Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy New Year!

Ah...the New Year: a new beginning in all sorts of ways. We'll soon have a new president. New laws take effect, like the one in California which now makes it unlawful to text message while driving. People resolve to do and be better. Even big businesses make promises for the coming year. Members of PHARMA have cheerfully joined in, as this recent article in the NY Times noted.

Starting Jan. 1, the pharmaceutical industry has agreed to a voluntary moratorium on the kind of branded goodies — Viagra pens, Zoloft soap dispensers, Lipitor mugs — that were meant to foster good will and, some would say, encourage doctors to prescribe more of the drugs.

No longer will Merck furnish doctors with purplish adhesive bandages advertising Gardasil, a vaccine against the human papillomavirus. Banished, too, are black T-shirts from Allergan adorned with rhinestones that spell out B-O-T-O-X. So are pens advertising the Sepracor sleep drug Lunesta, in whose barrel floats the brand’s mascot, a somnolent moth.

The new voluntary industry guidelines try to counter the impression that gifts to doctors are intended to unduly influence medicine. The code, drawn up by Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, an industry group in Washington, bars drug companies from giving doctors branded pens, staplers, flash drives, paperweights, calculators and the like.

Well, whooptee-damn-doo. That ought to clear up any claims of impropriety, eh?

To be fair, the new code also reminds the member pharmaceuticals that the old code is still in effect.

The guidelines also reiterate the group’s 2002 code, which prohibited more expensive goods and services like tickets to professional sports games and junkets to resorts. And it asks companies that finance medical courses, conferences or scholarships to leave the selection of study material and scholarship recipients to outside program coordinators.

Yeah, that was admittedly a big one because it just didn't look so good. Appearances, after all, do matter.

Here's the thing, though. The code (which, remember, is voluntary) doesn't stop drug salesmen from taking the doctors and their staffs to lunch or dinner, as long as some "educational" program is included. And it doesn't stop drug companies from putting doctors on the payroll as "consultants". But, hey! They've got a product to market, and these are tough times for everybody. Here are some numbers, by the way, about this slice of the marketing department:

Last year, besides giving away nearly $16 billion in free drug samples to doctors, pharmaceutical companies spent more than $6 billion on “detailing” — an industry term for the sales activities of drug representatives including office visits to doctors, meal-time presentations and branded pens and other handouts, according to IMS Health, a health care information company.

Combine those figures with the advertising on television, radio, and the print media (including those glossy magazines), and you can begin to see why brand drugs are so expensive, adding to the cost of health care in the US.

What a system.

What a country.

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