Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Big Pharma and Bribes for Doctors

The Bangor Daily News has an editorial today against the practice of doctors receiving "gifts" from pharmaceutical manufacturers.

According to the article, nearly 90 percent of the $21 billion marketing budget of the pharmaceutical industry is directed at physicians. That $19 billion outlay paid doctors for free meals, travel and other expenses and fees for attending lectures and conferences, for their time spent at such meetings, provision of ghostwriting services, grants for research projects, and consultation services, the authors wrote.

They cited a survey showing that in the year 2000 the industry sponsored 314,000 events specifically for physicians. They said, "The purpose behind such industry contacts is unmistakable: Drug companies are attempting to promote the use of their products."

Free samples also would be barred, on the ground that they tend to bias physicians and patients in favor of expensive medications when cheaper alternatives may be just as effective.

First of all, I'm not defending Big Pharma here, since they are using their corporate power (enforced by Big Government) to obtain seemingly endless patents on their pharmaceuticals. In a left-libertarian world, more medicines would be available more cheaply, and sooner than in the current scheme.

But there are some good consequences of doctors' receiving free samples. Just last winter, at a time when I was without health insurance and therefore would be paying for medicine out of pocket, I needed some antibiotics to battle an infection in my lungs. My doctor's first question was whether I had insurance. When I replied in the negative, she went right to her cabinet to fetch a week's worth of free samples for me.

I'm worried that any prohibitions on doctors' receipt of free medicine samples will tend to hurt their poorest patients. Let's not let that happen. Let's inject free market principles into our health care and pharmaceutical systems. Let's not add more regulations that will only drive prices up and restrict availability.



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