Prescribe Me! A Treasure Trove of Psychiatric Drug Swag
At the heart of the American Psychiatric Association's annual conference in San Diego last month was the Exhibit Hall, where hucksters from 160 outfits ranging from Pfizer to a state mental hospital teased, rewarded and gave free prizes to the 17,000 psychiatrists at the convention.
Exhibitors spent tens of thousands of dollars for the chance to give away cool stuff, from a test of the Neuronetics transcranial magnetic stimulator (zapping hands, not heads) to flash-memory devices promoting an Alzheimer's drug.
But the overall loot level is shrinking, so to speak, says Dr. Dan Carlat, who lobbies psychiatrists to reject more expensive gifts from pharmaceutical firms. That's partly a result of complaints, and partly because so much of the merchandise handed out generously in past years -- Prozac mouse pads and gym bags, Zoloft coffee mugs -- promoted drugs with recently expired patents, which are now sold generically.
"Nobody can make money on the generics so they aren't going to pay to sell something," Carlat says. "Only three of the SSRIs (a class of antidepressant) are still patented."
Sleeping-pill wars between Rozerem, Lunesta and Ambien continue. Ambien, the oldest of the trio -- with an emerging list of side effects that include sleep-walking, sleep-driving, sleep-eating and hallucinations -- was the most generously promoted of the three, with branded pens, Post-Its and staplers.
Some stuff was stacked for handing out by the dozens of good-looking, well-groomed reps. But for the best toys, attendees had to take an educational quiz of six to 10 questions on a touch screen.
Carlat's group rented the smallest available space on the floor for $2,200, and set up a "No Free Lunch" booth, offering "amnesty" to shrinks by trading unmarked, non-promoting pens and lanyards for the pharma-decorated stuff.
But Carlat says the free swag is just fine in the exhibit hall. "People know exactly who they're dealing with," he says. His bigger concern comes from the pharmaceutical companies' more subtle influence over psychiatry.
"In the symposia and the industry media -- where drug companies are paying for the studies, the publicity, the reports and half the continuing medical education -- they aren't out in the open the way they are when they hand you a pen."