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Globe Editorial

Take a backbone pill

December 12, 2008
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A PROMISING new gift ban designed to stop drug companies from buying the good will of doctors has turned into a gift horse for the pharmaceutical industry.

For years, drug companies have tried to woo doctors with gifts, free lunches, and generous speaking and consulting fees. Such marketing is especially common when a company introduces a new, more costly medicine to compete with existing, cheaper alternatives. Patients have a right to know that doctors are prescribing a medication because it is the best choice for them, not because the maker of the drug is lavishing favors on their doctor.

Last summer, Governor Patrick signed a health cost control bill that included strict new limits on financial ties between drug companies and doctors. Unfortunately, the state Department of Public Health has come up with proposed regulations that omit the requirement that drug companies publicly disclose certain consulting fees and research grants given to doctors. The Public Health Council, which will vote on the regulations after two public hearings in January, should take a backbone pill and stipulate that the public has a right to this information, too.

The industry worries that disclosure of such data will force companies to reveal competitive and confidential information, which they say might keep them from conducting research and clinical trials in Massachusetts. This has not happened, however, in Minnesota, which has had a disclosure law since the early 1990s.

Congressional investigators this summer relied on information from a drug company to learn that three Massachusetts doctors, including Dr. Joseph Biederman of Massachusetts General Hospital, had provided inaccurate information about the funds they had received from the industry.

Ideally, Congress would ban drug company gifts to doctors and require disclosure of all financial ties on a national basis. As a world-recognized center of medical research, Massachusetts should lead in moving the country in that direction. But it can't with these weak regulations from DPH. State Senator Mark Montigny of New Bedford, a longtime proponent of a gift ban and disclosure, said the DPH's proposed regulations "in no way reflect the letter or the spirit of the law that was passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor."

Financial support of clinical research by pharmaceutical companies has become more critical to doctors in recent years because of the failure of government funding to keep pace. Congress should increase its support of the National Institutes of Health. It should also set a national standard for disclosing financial ties between industry and doctors.

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