Council Vote On Pharma Gifts Weakens Ban: How Much Is A 'Modest' Meal?

(Updated: 4:22 p.m.)

The Boston Herald reports that the state's Public Health Council has approved regulations that weaken the state's ban on pharmaceutical industry gifts and fancy dinners for doctors.

The decision disappoints the non-profit Health Care For All. On its blog, it says:

Despite widespread opposition among Council members, the Public Health Council voted this morning to enact final regulations on meals provided by the drug and device industry to doctors and other prescribers. The regulations approved today keep intact the expansive, subjective definition of “modest” meals, as whatever a doctor would order on his or her own. The regulations also permit drug sales teams to provide free alcoholic beverages to doctors at drug industry “educational” sessions. Although a number of motions were made to ban alcohol and limit the amount spent on meals, they were not voted on during the somewhat chaotic process of discussing the regulations. (see the Boston Herald coverage)

We were deeply disappointed by the outcome, which ignored extensive evidence that pharma industry marketing practices distort prescribing and raise drug costs for everyone.

To recap: In 2008, the state passed a sweeping ban prohibiting drug companies from giving gifts and fancy dinners to doctors. This summer, after some major lobbying from the restaurant and pharmaceutical industries, the ban was partly repealed to allow "modest meals and refreshments" served “in a venue and manner conducive to informational communication.”

Of course, modest is in the eye of the beholder. Personally, I consider McDonald's and Burger King to be modest, maybe all the way up to Appleby's and Olive Garden. What do you think?

Health Care for All argues:

We’ve called for a strict dollar limit (“modest means modest”), and think that free alcohol is utterly incompatible with educational meetings.

And they note that the cost of meals "is passed on to consumers in the form of higher drug prices."

If such wining and dining didn’t work, the drug industry wouldn’t spend $6 billion a year on direct marketing to physicians. In addition, marketing expenses such as meals are tax deductible for the pharmaceutical or device companies, lowering their tax bill, reducing state and federal revenue, and ultimately increasing the tax burden on the remainder of the state residents.

See some of our previous coverage here and here. And Health Care for All's blog carries an extensive account of the council meeting, and notes that the council voted to re-examine the question with new data in six months.

This program aired on November 21, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

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Carey Goldberg Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.



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