Article Date: 11/1/2009

Farewell Filet, Hello Ham Sandwich

Farewell Filet, Hello Ham Sandwich

Some find it hard to swallow restrictions set by the new PhRMA guidelines.

Jim Thomas

Several months ago, a pharmaceutical sales rep received a call from one of her customers, a surgeon. "He called from a restaurant asking if I wouldn't mind picking up the check for a dinner party he was holding for his wife," she told me. "A few years ago, I would have put it on my expense account. Today, I find a way to gracefully decline."

This story is small potatoes compared with other incidents in which pharmaceutical companies have picked up their customer's tab for tickets to exclusive sporting events or expensive vacations. Earlier this year such practices became history, thanks to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) new code, which is "part of an ongoing effort to ensure that pharmaceutical marketing practices comply with the highest ethical standards."

Modest meals only

While the revised PhRMA code took effect in January, anecdotal evidence suggests that customers still don't fully understand the limitations the guidelines place on their vendors. Companies that follow the code cannot provide customers with vacations or tickets to sporting or recreational events. The guidelines also prohibit restaurant dinners, although they allow occasional "modest" meals in the healthcare professional's office in conjunction with informational events. As modest is a relative term, PhRMA provides a rule-of-thumb on 'View from the top column' of its guidelines: "sandwiches or pizza." But what if the restaurant is located in the same building as the practice? Sorry, no diced beef.

No family style dining

Companies can provide occasional meals outside the office provided the meal is modest, incidental to a "substantive interaction," not part of an entertainment or recreational event and takes place in a venue conducive to "informational communication." Such meetings are off limits to spouses — regardless of who pays — unless the "guest would independently qualify as a healthcare professional for whom the informational presentation is appropriate."

In addition, the giving of non-educational items, such as mugs, pens or other objects that contain a company or product logo, isn't allowed.

Some healthcare professionals have criticized the code as unnecessary and insulting, while others view it as a step forward. Before you reach a conclusion, I encourage you to read through the entire code, which you can find at And then maybe we can discuss it over a slice and a soda. To be absolutely safe, you can pick up the tab. OM

Optometric Management, Issue: November 2009