Treating the Symptoms

This move by pharmaceutical companies to stop handing out random trinkets to doctors seems like a pretty cynical move to me:

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.

Doctors are well-paid professionals, none of them are going to seriously compromise patient care in exchange for a mug or a pen. But if you read Marcia Angell’s New York Review of Books article on the vast web of corruption between drug companies and medical professionals, you’ll see that mugs and pens have nothing to do with anything. We’re talking about serious cash. Things like a doctor who “failed to disclose approximately $500,000 he received from GlaxoSmithKline for giving dozens of talks promoting the company’s drugs.” Or this:


Senator Grassley found that Schatzberg controlled more than $6 million worth of stock in Corcept Therapeutics, a company he cofounded that is testing mifepristone — the abortion drug otherwise known as RU-486 — as a treatment for psychotic depression. At the same time, Schatzberg was the principal investigator on a National Institute of Mental Health grant that included research on mifepristone for this use and he was coauthor of three papers on the subject.

This is big bucks, serious stuff. The branded mugs and such were, if anything, the achilles heel in the drug companies’ perversion of the process — patients could see the stuff, and the stuff has corporate logos on it. It’s a visual reminder that for all you know your doctor is prescribing courses of treatment that are in line with his financial interests rather than with your health interests. By adopting a new “no mugs” policy the companies are helping to re-obscure their financial relationships with doctors and at the same claim claiming to be cleaning up their act. It’s clever, but it’s not good.