Pompoms and pill pushers: Big Pharma sinks to a new low

Pompoms and pill pushers: Big Pharma sinks to a new low

First, the drug companies tried bribing doctors with dinners, travel, and gifts. Next they moved on to the researchers and began bribing them through “grants” and consultation fees. Now they come straight to your living room by advertising on TV: “Ask your doctor if Vioxx is right for you.” Sound familiar?

Despite these tactics, the big drug companies are suffering from what appears to be a midlife crisis. Beleaguered drugmaker Merck & Co. announced that it plans to cut about 7,000 jobs (11 percent of its work force) and will close or sell five of its 31 manufacturing plants by the end of 2008. They call it a “reorganization strategy.” I call it FOGB (Fear of Going Broke). And when there’s fear, desperate measures may be taken-ethics be damned. So now the drugmakers are sending in the big guns-cheerleaders.

Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But that’s just what’s happening all across the country. They’re getting paid big bucks for it, too. That’s because the cheerleader-turned-sales rep is the latest weapon of the pharmaceutical companies. It’s a pretty strong weapon, too, because sex sells. “There’s a saying that you’ll never meet an ugly drug rep,” said Dr. Thomas Carli of the University of Michigan. Even the male drug reps are athletic and handsome.

Stephanie Saul of The New York Times reported, “Some industry critics view wholesomely sexy drug representatives as a variation on the seductive inducements like dinners, golf outings and speaking fees that pharmaceutical companies have dangled to sway doctors to their brands.” Are they suggesting that a doctor (maybe even your doctor) would allow himself to be persuaded as to his prescription choices by an ignorant, but sexy, cheerleader? Nah!

One of the members of this sexy sales force, Cassie Napier, formerly of the University of Kentucky Wildcats cheering team, reported to The New York Times on this playboy-medicine routine. Ms. Napier says the skills she honed performing for thousands of fans helped her land the job: “I would think, essentially, that cheerleaders make good sales people.”

Gregory C. Webb thinks so too. Webb is a principal in a company that runs cheerleading camps that train women how to combine their sex appeal with business. He rounds them out into perfect foxes (with dignity, of course). Then the drug company buys the product and puts on the finishing touches by injecting into their receptive little brains a little pseudoscientific nonsense that’s connected to the company’s product. Webb said he knew hundreds of former cheerleaders who had become drug representatives.

Times sure have changed. When I graduated from college, I applied to a number of pharmaceutical firms for a job as a “detail man.” (Now it’s detail person, I guess.) I had a pre-med degree with a major in chemistry from a highly rated university, but all the big pooh-bahs in the pharmaceutical industry turned me down because I didn’t have a degree in pharmacy. Now a little ol’ thing like education doesn’t seem to matter. T. Lynn Williamson, Napier’s cheerleading advisor, said that proven cheerleading skills suffice: “Exaggerated motions, exaggerated smiles, exaggerated enthusiasm-they learn those things, and they can get people to do what they want.”

I just don’t understand how cheerleading could “essentially” prepare anyone to talk medicine, physiology, pharmacology, blood drug levels, drug interactions, research articles, and the dosages of often-dangerous products with a doctor who has spent a minimum of 10 years in universities to become a competent physician.

I advise my colleagues to tell the drug companies this: “Don’t send your beauty queens in here to tell me how to practice medicine. Hooters, hair, and hips will not persuade me in my therapeutic choices for my patients. It’s an insult to me and my profession. Unless they have something else to offer other than your drugs, tell them to stay away from my office.”


“Gimme an Rx! Cheerleaders pep up drug sales,” The New York Times, 11/28/05