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There Is Such a Thing as a Free Lunch, and Massachusetts Wants to Make It Law

You might laugh at the idea that Massachusetts is considering ending a ban on pharmaceutical companies giving gifts to doctors at the behest of the restaurant industry. After all, shouldn't decisions over patients' health be free from the influence of whoever bought lunch for their doctor?

No, say restaurants in the Bay State, who want the gift ban ended. Statehouse Democrats say the ban, which prevents drug sales reps from delivering free sandwiches to doctors, has "severely impacted the profitability" of local businesses. Rep. Brian Dempsey told the Boston Business Journal:

... we've been hearing from device and biotech companies, the convention center and the restaurant industry, that this is causing additional problems during the worst recession in memory.
On its face, this sounds ridiculous: Massachusetts is seriously considering changing its laws to allow give companies more influence over doctors in order to satisfy local Subway franchisees. But you only need to do a small amount of research to realize just how dependent some restaurants are on drug sales reps who want to chat 'n' chew with physicians in their sales territory. Check out the testimonials for EZ Restaurant Marketing, a consultancy that advises delis on how to get into the doctor-feeding business:
David Ullery -- Pumpernickel Foods, Elkhardt, Ind.: My best estimates are that a drug rep will be worth no less than $5,000 a year in sales to our business, this assumes just two luncheons per month, and all our current reps average more than that. ... we will be able to pay all of our overhead with nothing but drug rep profits.

Jeff Norris -- Twins Restaurant & Catering, Erie, Pa.: I used to do 2 maybe 3 luncheons per week, and soon I was doing 2 or 3 luncheons PER DAY. Thru June 30th , 2004 I have done 4 TIMES the amount of business with drug reps than I did in ALL of 2003. My marketing is on cruise control. I have some offices REQUIRING drug reps to call me for their luncheons!

In Los Angeles there's an entire company that only does free drug company lunches for doctors: It's called Dr. Lunch, and local physicians sing its praises:
My staff and I request their lunches repeatedly. We have always enjoyed the food and service provided by DR.LUNCH. The food is not only delicious, but always fresh. I highly recommend them for any event, whether it be your office or home. -- Martin Levine, M.D.
Some doctors get so used to free lunches that they issue instruction sheets to sales reps, such as this delightfully specific one from a Baltimore doctor obtained by Pharmalot ("Please do not order wraps, several members of the office have not tolerated them well").

And we're not just talking sandwiches and chips. Free lunches can be elaborate. Angelo's of Flemington, N.J., offers Tiger Shrimp sautéed in a pink cream vodka sauce with penne pasta. You can see other doctor-feeding businesses here and here and here and here.

I recently joked that Massachusetts was being pressured by "the catering-services-industrial complex." Many a true word was spoken in jest, it seems.


Image by Flickr user Moriza, CC.