A couple of weeks ago, GlaxoSmithKline Chief Chris Viehbacher tried out the bully pulpit on Massachusetts lawmakers considering a gift ban for physicians.  Too early to tell, but it may have done more harm than good.  So now pharma companies are trying a different tactic – have the caterers plead their case for them.

The caterers who make all those physician lunches certainly have a horse in this race – Kevin Abt, Founder of RestaurantstoYou.com, a corporate catering service in Stoughton, Mass., estimates that pharmaceutical reps drop $40 million on food in for docs in the state every year. Hardly chump change.  And because of this, he’s asking Massachusetts representatives to strike meals from the list of gifts that would be banned under proposed bill S.B. 2660.

We know that pharma has long found ways to get what it wants by talking through others – physicians, say, or advisors for the FDA. But a tip to the letter-writers of the world: if you don’t want to look like you were put up to something, don’t parrot information you probably couldn’t get doing your job. 

The petitioner from RestaurantstoYou moves quickly from entreating to indignant: “How could we think “the most educated people in the world, Doctors, could be manipulated by the offer of a ham sandwich and chips from a pharmaceutical or medical device company sales agent?  Instead, the opposite is true. Doctors routinely ask these reps to go do more research for them, at no cost to the doctor, so that they can have additional information for their individual analysis that they will use to make decisions regarding their patients.”

Abt knows this because he says to better understand his clients, he has watched from the back of the room in admiration as the reps performed their lunch and learns. Fine.

But if you are the one making the sandwiches, do you really want to sound like you are reading off the same talking points as the state policy director for the PhRMA trade association? PostScript has been to enough hearings to know those talking points when we hear them. Sales reps with no background in science are providing valuable information about drugs that physicians can’t get anywhere else? And pasta salad.


No doubt: $40 M is a lot of money to spend on food every year – but if that number tells Massachusetts lawmakers anything, it’s the sheer scale of investment these companies have made in wooing physicians, evidence that it’s probably time for the marketing machine is to be reined in.

If nothing else, it’s intriguing to see pharma moving the mouths of both Ivy League physicians who are recruited to speakers bureaus where they use marketers’ slides to pitch their drugs for them, and those of the blue collar catering drivers from Stoughton: “The food we deliver is wholesome and delicious, but it is not flashy or expensive.”  We have to hand it to them: The chemical pushers have become deft chameleon puppeteers.

But in another sense, pharma has found authentic common ground with the simple ham sandwich makers of the world – they’ve got mouths to feed, starting with the shareholders.