Monday, March 26, 2007

Dining at Pharma's Table

Last week, several bloggers met with J&J corporate PR people at a fancy NYC restaurant (see "Should Bloggers Dine at Pharma's Table?" also see my post here).

I was invited, but could not attend.

Even so, I was concerned about accepting a lavish dinner and open bar from a company I write about in my blog. Not that I or any of the bloggers that attended can be bought off by a "a piece of trout and a glass of wine" as Jim Edwards of BrandweekNRX noted (Steven Palter, MD of docinthemachine blog, who also attended, expressed it thus: "it takes a lot more than a steak and corrupt me.")

Trout and wine or steak and fries...yummm!

My main reason for posting this and making more of it than some think I should is to begin to establish standards for bloggers like myself who do not have a journalistic background. Journalists, in fact, do have policies for accepting free meals from organizations they may be writing about. Take Ed Silverman over at Pharmalot, for example. He stated his policy this way:

"The arrangement is this: J&J will send the bill and Pharmalot will send a check. Pharmalot does not accept industry funding. Surprised? We hope not."

If you cannot be influenced by trout or steak, why do journalists generally have a policy similar to Ed's? Should bloggers in general adopt a policy like Ed's?

Help me out by taking the following poll (we're talking about bloggers that write about the pharma industry):

Should bloggers accept free meals from pharma?
Yes, no problem
No, never
Sometimes, it depends
Free polls from

Whatever the policy should be, one thing is certain. Every blogger that attended that meeting should be transparent about it and tell their readers that they attended and what their policy about freebies from pharma is. IMHO.


  1. Anonymous10:26 AM

    As long as you are opening up the discussion... Why draw the distinction at just meals? Why not say any special perks from pharmaceutical companies (or anyone else)?

    I have to ask the question--You received the "special gift" of a private screening of the J&J film Innerstate (incidently, the same company that hosted the dinner). Given some of your historical criticisms of DTC advertising, would your review of the film ( been as positive as it was if you were not given the special gift of a private screening?

    The case could be easily be made that such a situation of one-on-one influence from the J&J executive tainted your perspective far more than it would have been in an open environment of a movie screening or a dinner where other Bloggers were present. What was privately discussed?

    I'm not saying you did anything unethical (and I don't believe you did), I'm playing devil's advocate here that what may be a situation of questionable ethics to some (as you view the J&J blogger dinner) may not be a questionable situation to others (who did not discuss it).

  2. Frankly, I did not expect Michael Parks to be there. Nevertheless, aside from it being a "private" screening, it was just exactly like being invited to the inital screening in NYC that a lot of journalists were invited to, except Philadelphia is not NYC, a Dorland consfernceroom is not the Directors Guild of America Theatre, and the director wasn't there to shake my hand.

    So, all in all, it was a poor match for what journalists were invited to and how they were treated. The Centocor press release inviting journalists to the initial screening is entitled "CENTOCOR ROLLS OUT THE RED CARPET FOR PATIENTS WITH THE DOCUMENTARY INNERSTATE." When I was walking up windy and cold Broad Street that day, I certainly did not see a red carpet! There wasn't any free food when I got there, either! I think I would have been MUCH more imnpressed by the NYC event!

    Frankly, I may have been somewhat influenced by the screening -- but not because I got some kind of "special treatment." What really influenced me was the movie itself and the positive impression I had of Mr. Parks. I am not ashamed to admit that those things influence me.

    There is another difference -- the screening has absolutely no monetary value. Anyone can see the movie in their local theater without paying a nickel! But not everyone can have dinner and drinks in a nice NYC restuarant!

    If we were to draw up some draft rules for what is and what is not proper ethical behavior for bloggers, I'm not sure how you would address a "special invitation" issue. My first guideline on that issue would be to look at what a journalist would do. So, I throw the question back at you: If Centocor invited you to a private screening, what would your policy be and why?

  3. P.S. One other thing: I told the story exactly as it happened and didn't hide anything. That is, I admitted I got a special invitation. What would have been unethical --perhaps -- is if I wrote a favorable review and did NOT describe how I was influenced.

    Applying this to the J&J dinner, those of you who were forthright about it and transparent did the right thing -- your wrote about it in your blogs. Some other bloggers have decided, however, not to mention it in their blogs. That's their perogative, but I think it hurts their credibility.

  4. Anonymous8:38 PM

    Since you asked, I'll tackle both the blogger dinner and the private screening. First off, unlike some, I claim no ties to journalism of any kind (I also question just how ethical journalists really are).

    I believe that most of us know when something crosses the line. For me, a $70 dinner at Beppe doesn't qualify. I've eaten there before and it's nice enough to qualify as business appropriate but not nice enough that it should have given anyone acid reflux requiring PPI treatment.

    Now, a $200 dinner at Daniel would be a different matter. Or if the company offered the $70 dinner at Beppe and then gave everyone gifts (a digital camera, an AMEX gift card or something else) that would also be inappropriate (but a J&J pen would permissible). If the nature of the meal is such that you wouldn't want anyone to know about it, then it's gone to far. Had I been invited to the blogger dinner and it was of a business/professional nature (say less than about $75), I would have gone with no problem. Assuming the conversation was good, I would have written about it.

    Now, the private movie screening of the Centocor film Innerstate. Sure, I'd go and I'd write about it. You've indicated that the private screening had no monetary value, but I would challenge that something needs to have monetary value to be unethical or create undue influence. If someone does something for me that I would be unable to do myself, a bond of indebtedness is created (perhaps small, perhaps large). Is watching a movie significant enough to influence? Probably not, but I felt the need to bring it into the discussion.

    Now, the nature of disclosure. This is tricky because what is significant to one person is not to another. You clearly feel that the J&J Blogger dinner was significant, in terms of cost, that required disclosure. I don't (although would question why anyone would give up 3 hours in the evening to attend a dinner without writing about). So what level is significant? $100? $50? Or the $0.25 Plavix pen? I guess that's where we're at. I don't know.

    Again, my inital comments about your attending the private screening were not intended as an idictment of your behavior. I think you've been above board--both on the film and the dinner.

  5. Thanks for the comment.

    One thing I take away from it is putting a figure on when the line is crossed. Much as PhRMA guidelines for gifts to physicians place a $100 limit, any blogger guidelines might include some such thing as well.

    That would take the guessing out of what is and what is not significant.

  6. The length of these comments indicate there is an issue, and it doesn't go away because bloggers say they aren't influenced. That just makes them sound like doctors. In the end, question is if bloggers care, do they need to uphold any reputation? If they want to be taken seriously, perhaps they need to think about this. Best policy, if someone can't afford to pay, or want a free meal, is to tell it exactly like it is; the way John Mack has done this. It's the bloggers eating and not telling that will get in real trouble.

  7. There is a difference between transparency and being a prissy Puritan.

    If you are unable to write critically about a drug firm after being invited to lunch, what does that say for your critical values?

    The problem is not people who are invited to meet with industry managers, but with those who do not disclose it when they start writing glowing reviews. I'd say open season on exposing such behavior. However, unlike doctors, bloggers do not (yet) have the same degree of power over patients lives and well-being. The harm done by being a prostitute to pharma hospitality is loss of credibility, which is all the punishment needed. I'm worried about the notion that doctors are incapable of exercising sound medical judgement because a rep gave then a plastic pen: are the graduates of medical schools THAT gullible and lacking in principles?

    One could always attend a dinner and not eat anything, or insist on paying. A better reason to refuse is that one does not feel the event will bring any value. I'm much more inclined to accept an invite based on the caliber of the people present and the likelihood of getting a story, than the venue or the food budget (in fact I'd happily never attend an event with alcohol or fancy food, in exchange for a chance at five minutes with a board level exec even to chat off the record).

    On the one hand people want to attack drug firms for being remote (with good reason, most of the time). On the other they want to attack them for trying to get to understand bloggers and their agenda. There IS a debate in the big pharma over what to do about blogs. Ignore them? Monitor them as potentially useful barometers of adverse events? Treat them as hostile? Or a combination?

    The conversations I've had privately with executives in several drug firms suggest that openness is coming, albeit at glacial speed.

    Disclosure: I think I may have been the person who recommended you to the person who drew up the invitation list. At least, I was asked to provide (free of charge) a list of pharma blogs to someone who I know is in touch with J&J. For the record, any omissions among the pharma blogging community are therefore possibly down to my poor memory and the fact that I produced a hurried list (if I'd been paid, I might have taken a morning off to do a thorough job of it, so much for the consequences of turning down drug industry money!). I apologize for anyone who got left out. I hope I do not need to apologize for giving pharma bloggers the opportunity to turn down drug hospitality or make interesting contacts.

  8. Antoine,

    Thanks for your comment. And thanks for recommending my blog to J&J.

    For the record, there were several reasons why I canceled at the last minute, and none had to do with any problem accepting dinner, which I thought I made clear. Let me make it clearer: I had the shits and a fever caused by an allergic reaction to shellfish! I could have gone and done what you suggested: not eaten. Whatever option I chose, it wasn't going to be fun for me.

    You imply that I am a prissy Puritan, to which I take exception. Instead of name calling, why don't we stick to the real issue and have a civilized discussion?

    It seems that my post has hit a nerve. In my little poll, a majority of respondents (53%) believe that bloggers should never accept free meals from pharma, while 31% said it depends and 17% said "Yes, no problem." I voted "sometimes, it depends.'

    As you correctly state, the real issue is transparency and I am glad that my post FORCED a few bloggers who attended to be transparent about it and tell us what their policy is. It was enlightening. A few other bloggers -- eg, Peter Pitts -- have not said a word on this and remain as murky as ever in regard their ties to the industry.

    That goes to another point you made: making interesting contacts with the industry. I personally don't need to go to dinner to make interesting contacts with pharma people. I do it every day through the services I offer the industry: my newsletter and online discussion boards, for example. I also speak at and/or attend many industry meetings and have lunch with pharma people there. In that case, we all pay for our own lunches and a good time is had by all without worrying about it.


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