A ubiquitous element of pharmaceutical marketing is scheduled to vanish next January 1, as the revised marketing code of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America goes into effect. Gone will be the non-educational freebies—the pens, pads, mugs, toys, and miscellaneous tchotchkes?that pharma companies distribute by the carload.
(Just how much pharma junk are we talking about? In January, one healthcare system in Duluth, MN, banned promotional knickknacks from its facilities altogether—and promptly collected 18,700 individual items.)
The new code also prohibits company sales reps from providing restaurant meals to healthcare professionals, but still allows them to provide light fare in physicians' offices during informational presentations. In addition, the newly revised code requires companies to train reps on applicable laws and regulations, and requires a CEO or chief compliance officer to certify in writing that procedures are in place.
Tchotchkes may not be the most pressing issue in pharma marketing, as recent attacks on ghostwriting of medical articles and direct-to-consumer advertising prove. But promotional objects have been a magnet for criticism, with several organizations, including the Association of American Medical Colleges, moving to ban them in recent months.
"It has the look of an unprofessional relationship," said Billy Tauzin, president and chief executive officer of PhRMA, during a press conference on the revised code. "Removing that look is important."
"We have already seen the pharmaceutical industry begin to shift from overtly promotional activities to more educationally focused activities, and I believe the revisions to the PhRMA code will compel them to continue moving in that direction," said Tricia Glover, chief compliance officer for inVentiv Health.
How effective will these changes be? Glover believes they will enhance industry standards for marketing practices in the same way the 2002 PhRMA code helped established the initial standards and principles. "Not only is the adoption of the code endorsed and recommended by the OIG, the industry is also under a growing level of scrutiny and pressure from the public to uphold higher ethical standards," she said. "Companies choosing to not follow the code would be putting their reputations at stake."
Kim Levy, vice president of strategic services at MicroMass Communications thinks the revised code is just a distraction. "Pens and pads do not build relationships. Great marketing requires dialogue," said Levy. "The fact that we as an industry have become reactive enough to worry about the propriety of a pen rather than focusing on building constructive relationships with health care professionals to improve patient care is disturbing."
With January right around the corner, there's not much time for pharma to put new procedures in place, and decide what to do with trinkets deemed inappropriate for sharing.
"I think it's going to take some time before everyone is up to speed on this new compliance ruling," said Nancy Beesley, executive vice president of HC&B Healthcare Communications. "The fact is that it's hard for large companies with disparate sales forces to police on compliance. That said, I think that pharmaceutical companies are held to a much higher standard than almost any other industry, and while they may not like it, they will do what's right."