How Big Pharma is buying influence with doctors -- for less than a $20 meal
Doctor holding a stack of pills (Shutterstock)

In entirely unsurprising but still disturbing news, giving people bribes make them do the things you are intentionally bribing them to do.

An analysis published yesterday in JAMA Internal Medicine shows that doctors who are given meals by a pharmaceutical company are more likely to prescribe that company’s brand-name, pricier pills and less likely to prescribe generic, cheaper options.

In many cases, the more expensive the meal, the more likely doctors were to prescribe the company’s meds. But even when the meals cost less than $20, the doctors who ate them later prescribed the brand-name pills more often.

These findings will likely heighten the debate around the marketing tactics of pharmaceutical companies. In the past few years, drug companies have been forced to pay fines for illegal marketing and giving doctors kickbacks designed to boost prescribing rates.

The issue is so prevalent that even George Clooney is taking an interest. He’s planning on producing, with the writer-directors of Making a Murderer, a documentary mini-series about the drug company Johnson and Johnson and their shady tactics around the drug Risperdal.

The series will be based on Steven Brill’s Huffington Post article America’s Most Admired Lawbreaker, which chronicled the scandal that forced Johnson & Johnson to pay more than $2.2 billion after it was accused of aggressively marketing Risperdal for off-label uses, including the treatment of dementia, anxiety, and behavioral problems in children.

That may sound like a big penalty, but given that they reportedly made over $30 billion from global sales of the drug, the payment amounted to nothing more than the “cost of doing business.” Johnson & Johnson was accused of giving kickbacks to doctors in order to encourage them to prescribe Risperdal for these purposes, without warning about the harmful side effects, which can include hormonal disorders, and in elderly patients treated for dementia, the minor little side effect of “increased risk of death.”

Johnson & Johnson wouldn’t have had to give doctors much, according to the JAMA study. Are doctors really so starving that a happy meal is enough to influence what they prescribe, at everyone else’s expense?

This article was originally published by The Influence, a news site that covers the full spectrum of human relationships with drugs. Follow The Influence on Facebook or Twitter.