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Big Pharma's New Marketing Strategy: Getting Doctors Really Drunk

Eli Lilly got slapped for pitching its pills while getting doctors sloshed.

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Doctors are "educated" through pharma's wining and dining.
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By Kirk Maltais

06/28/11

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In many industries, sales pitches and business meetings go hand-in-hand with, you know, booze. Landing important contracts with the help of some social lubricant is nothing new. However, is this a practice that drug companies should be partaking in?

According to a recent article by Bnet.com’s pharma reporter, Jim Edwards, U.S. drugmaker Eli Lilly has been called on the carpet by Britain’s Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority (PMCA) for using alcohol to help persuade doctors of the benefits—off-label, no less—of its diabetes blockbuster, Byetta.

Not just a drink or two, either. According to the PMCPA, Lilly footed the bill for five sales reps, two nursing specialists, and one endocrinologist to rack up a tab of $300 plus change at an Indian restaurant. The receipt for the group of eight included the following: seven pints of beer, two gins, two whiskies, seven whisky liqueurs and three large glasses of red wine.

The PMCPA, a self-regulatory body for the participating drug companies, has no real power to punish Eli Lilly. Nevertheless, the PMCPA has condemned the firm’s excessively alcoholic spending on what the company referred to as a “business meeting.” “The overall arrangements for the meeting were such as to bring discredit upon the industry,” says the PMCPA.

The question is, just how widespread is this kind of practice? Are drug companies getting doctors boozed up in order to better sell them on their prescription products?

According to some doctors, this kind of wining and dining is nothing new. A 2009 blog post by Dr. Rob Siegel, a cardiologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, details the lengths that drug companies will go to woo doctors to use their brands of drugs. The post, titled “Drug Companies Buy My Booze,” claims that instead of leaving doctors with free swag—the pens, mugs and random tchotchkes that Big Pharma has voluntarily agreed to abadnon—companies are ramping up their “educational dinners,” at which local doctors get to down free drinks and flirt with the cute blondes disguised as sales reps—all while poring over the strictly “scientific” data showing the superior benefits of the host’s drug.

So what’s the big deal in docs having a night out on pharma’s tab? According to Siegel, these cozy relationships with pharma lead doctors, however much they may deny the influence, to “prescribe expensive untested drugs when inexpensive and effective alternatives exist.”

As for Lilly, the struggling drug company, which is increasingly viewed as a takeover target, looked into the boozy drug pitch and, not surprisingly, found no foul.

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