Bye Bye Freebies! Drug Companies Ax Free Goodies to Doctors

By Melissa Lafsky | January 5, 2009 1:16 pm

We’re back from a brief holiday hiatus, just in time for some heartening news to kick off 2009: As of Jan. 1, the Big Pharma companies have all agreed to stop producing and issuing the gobs of free loot—everything from pens to mugs to flashlights to T-shirts—they’ve been passing out to doctors for years.

Critics poo poo the measure as little more than lip service, a PR move that doesn’t address the far bigger issue: that the drug industry and medicine are hopelessly financially intertwined. (Want proof? Exhibits A, B, and C.) Doctors, meanwhile, brush off the idea that logo-ed pens and Post-Its could alter their prescribing habits.

Still, there’s plenty to be said for the influence of everyday objects, not to mention the power of advertising. Surround yourself with enough Burger King merchandise, and you’d be amazed at how often you start craving Whoppers. Wouldn’t the same principle apply when it comes to physicians and drugs?

(Full disclosure: RB is the child of two doctors, and our childhood desk was filled to overflowing with pens, paperweights, magnets, notepads, and countless other booty emblazoned with words like Diflucan, Avandia, and Provigil. We never went to med school, but we’d probably prescribe Lipitor simply because of their awesome mousepads.)

The pendulum has already started shifting towards greater disclosure in the medical industry, and eliminating freebies is a good move in that direction—not to mention an acknowledgment by the industry that the obscene amounts they’ve been spending on marketing may not be good for medicine.

Now if we could just get them to do something about those free lunches.

RB: Is Nothing Sacred? Nobel Prize Engulfed in Drug Company Scandal
RB: Clinic to Reveal All Doctor-Drug Industry Ties on the Web
RB: Drug Company Pocket-Padding: The Latest Chapter


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  1. Also the best part of this is that the amount of garbage these little “gift” items causes is horrible!

    My brother has been a pharm rep for years and he has closets of crap that he can’t get rid of because of drugs being taken off market and/or changing companies!

    I have to say though all the years of stuff I’ve seen from him a pen that looked like a real syringe with purple ink was pretty cool.

  2. Sharon McEachern

    Hey Cindy, you tell how your pharm rep brother has closets full of “freebie crap.” That’s a great metaphor for what’s been going on in the medical industry — manufacturers’ monetary relationship with physicians. When stuff is hidden in the closet it certainly isn’t transparent. And for many decades, pharmaceutical companies and medical product makers have been giving doctors financial incentives to influence their behavior — and everyone has been hiding it — not just how much the incentives amount to but the mere fact that they’re doing it at all. Yes millions and millions of dollars are spent on free goodies for the doctors’ offices (like pens, and other imprinted office items). But there are also the really big ticket items — big money research grants and large speakers’ fees.

    The Association for Medical Ethics has drafted its Ethical Rules of Disclosure which it believes are key to medical reform and must include full disclosure, crucial for independent validity and integrity of research. The organization says it will present its disclosure guidelines to President-elect Barack Obama’s team to help with medical reform policies. Boy, this all sounds so good! Physicians and the medical industry have suddenly changed and want to be open about all the money changing hands. That is, it sounds good until you find out that while they say physicians and academics should have no “Substantive Financial Interest” that creates unacceptable conflicts, they define this term as “receipt of greater than $50,000 from industry in one calendar year.”

    To read the guidelines for Ethical Rules of Disclosure by the Assn. for Medical Ethics, go to Ethic Soup blog at:

    Sharon McEachern

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