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Big Pharma Agrees to End Freebies to Doctors – Is it Enough?

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Starting January 1, about 40 drug maker giants, including Johnson & Johnson, Eli Lilly, and Pfizer, agreed to voluntarily stop giving out cute signature gifts, such as coffee mugs, pens, staplers and calculators, to doctors to help market their prescription drugs.

Though Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, who suggested and drew up the new guidelines, seems to be hoping this new behavior will help to change people’s minds about the inappropriate influence of drug advertising on doctors’ prescribing habits, its official position is that free gifts never had any influence over doctors at all.

Diane Bieri, the executive vice president of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said the updated guidelines were not an admission that gifts could influence doctors’ prescribing habits. Instead, she said, they were meant to emphasize the educational nature of the relationship between industry and doctors.

“We have never said and would never say that a pharmaceutical pen or notebook has influenced any prescription,” Ms. Bieri said. -Natasha Singer, New York Times

As we have noted recently on the blog, Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, discovered that even small gifts from pharmaceutical companies, including free lunches, coffee mugs, flash drives, binders, book bags, and free samples, affect doctors’ prescribing behavior. A 2003 study Caplan coauthored and published in the American Journal of Bioethics found “indisputable [evidence] that small gifts had a tremendous power in influencing favorable attitudes toward products.”

Is this a step in the right direction? Time, along with prescription stats, will tell. Notably, the new guidelines do not prohibit drug companies from offering free lunches or fancy dinners to doctors, provided that each meal comes with an “educational presentation” (i.e. marketing seminar). While it might be getting harder to deal drugs in the marketplace, the machinations of big pharma aren’t out of our lives yet.