Code puts cap on drug companies -Voluntary rules cut out free gifts sales reps use to influence physicians

Pens and prescription pads emblazoned with name-brand drug logos are as commonplace as stethoscopes in many doctor's offices. That all changed last Thursday.


The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the major lobbying group for drug companies including Merck, Pfizer and Bristol-Myers Squibb, enacted new rules governing how sales representatives in the field can interact with physicians.


Gone is much of the corporate swag, the Viagra-logoed clocks and black T-shirts with B-O-T-O-X spelled out in rhinestones for office staff workers paid for by Allergan. The trade group also put the kibosh on drug reps taking physicians out to dinner at restaurants even when speakers are booked for medical education purposes.


Dr. Etai Funk, a plastic surgeon and president of the Young Physicians Section of the Harris County Medical Society, says the rule changes are a good thing. "There's no doubt physicians are influenced, even if subliminally. It's analogous to a politician carrying a pen from a political action committee," Funk says.


Jack Cox, a spokesman for Pfizer, which makes Viagra, Celebrex and Lipitor, says the company is fully on board with the trade group's rule changes, but he scoffs at the notion that pens, mugs and other items that have nothing to do with patient education were ever a way to get in the door with doctors.


"We don't want to be perceived to be tied to trivial leave behinds, so doing away with them is a good thing. We've always been about the back-and-forth dialogue between physicians and our field representatives. That doesn't change," he says.


Compliance with the new code, which virtually all the major drug companies have agreed to but some the smaller ones are ignoring, is strictly voluntary and based on the honor system. That has some critics arguing that the self-regulation is an attempt to clean up the drug companies' tarnished image in the hopes of staving off more strident measures that could be taken by a new administration.

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