Should Our Premium Dollars (and Tax Dollars) Pay For Willy Wonka?

Last week, WBZ-TV reporter Jon Keller turned his investigative eye to the pharmaceutical marketing gift ban.

Who is suffering because Massachusetts law prohibits drug companies from showering doctors with fancy gifts and trinkets, as part of their marketing efforts to push high-cost, brand-name drugs?

Keller found the victim: the candy man. Yes, we’re talking chocolate wing-tip shoes, so your pharma drug rep can “get a foot in the door.” Retail price: $48.98. Really.

According to Keller’s report, a local candy maker isn’t selling as many chocolate shoes since the ban took effect.

We are not making this up. The shoes really were promoted to drug salespeople as a way to quote, get a foot in the door, unquote.

Why are we worrying about the candy makers? Maybe because the old arguments don’t hold up anymore. The restaurant industry is doing fine (2012 is their biggest year on record), and the drug industry conferences are roaring into Boston (BIO just had their biggest conference ever here this week). So it’s Willy Wonka who is suffering.

But here’s the thing. You and I pay for these shoes. We pay for it in higher drug prices, as much of the millions spent on marketing gets added to the cost of drugs. We also pay for it in higher taxes, as drug manufacturers get to deduct the cost of their marketing promotions from their taxable income, thus reducing the taxes they pay (and increasing ours).

What Keller’s report did not include is the myriad of independent studies (many of them collected here) that demonstrates that gifts to doctors, perhaps even candy shoes, influences their prescribing. Obviously, the drug industry wouldn’t be buying the shoes if they didn’t work.

Now, we never knew these shoes existed, and actually, they are pretty cool. We like candy shops to have lots and lots of business. But any day now the House-Senate budget conference committee will be deciding whether or not Massachusetts law will continue to restrict marketing practices that distort objective prescribing and inflate the cost of health care for all us. We hope they will decide to focus our medical spending on disease stoppers, rather than everlasting gobstoppers.
-Brian Rosman

About HCFA

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