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Eye On Olympia

Lawmakers doing their best to keep late-night TVW watchable…

Little-known fact: drug companies can see what your doctor's prescribing and use the information to tailor the pitches of their salespeople.

A bill approved late Monday night by the state Senate would ban that. Proponents say the practice likely drives up costs – are the salespeople really out there pitching generics? – and that doctors are often unaware of how much information drug companies can get about what prescriptions they're writing.

Sen. Brian Weinstein, D-Mercer Island, read aloud on the Senate floor from a drug-company e-mail about doctors: "Hold them accountable for all the time, samples, lunches, dinners, programs that you have provided or paid for to get their business," he read, saying that's precisely the mindset that the bill's meant to prevent.

The drug industry spends $30 billion a year on marketing, he said, $3 billion of which is for a sales force, typically of "young, sexy women" dispatched to doctors offices with drug samples and information.

Critics – mostly Republicans – said the bill goes too far. The information comes from the American Medical Association, Sen. Cheryl Pflug said, which allows doctors to opt out. But Senate Bill 6241 won't even let doctors opt in to such a program.

"I think we have, again, a case of `We love to beat up on pharmaceutical companies,'" said Pflug, R-Maple Valley, who also objected to the "sexy" characterization of the sales force as disrespectful and, well, inaccurate. ("It's true," Weinstein said.)

Only the federal government, Sen. Mike Carrell said, can regulate interstate and international trade. He maintains that the bill is unconstitutional and that lawmakers are therefore trying to do the impossible.

"I don't know what it is about late at night," said Carrell, R-Lakewood, "but this isn't the first time the Legislature has tried to repeal gravity."

UPDATE: Weinstein cites this article from the New York Times. An excerpt:

Anyone who has seen the parade of sales representatives through a doctor's waiting room has probably noticed that they are frequently female and invariably good looking. Less recognized is the fact that a good many are recruited from the cheerleading ranks.

Known for their athleticism, postage-stamp skirts and persuasive enthusiasm, cheerleaders have many qualities the drug industry looks for in its sales force. Some keep their pompoms active, like Onya, a sculptured former college cheerleader. On Sundays she works the sidelines for the Washington Redskins. But weekdays find her urging gynecologists to prescribe a treatment for vaginal yeast infection.

The Atlantic also made a similar point in an article in 2006. From it:

Today detail men are officially known as “pharmaceutical sales representatives,” but everyone I know calls them “drug reps.” Drug reps are still easy to spot in a clinic or hospital, but for slightly different reasons.

The most obvious is their appearance. It is probably fair to say that doctors, pharmacists, and medical-school professors are not generally admired for their good looks and fashion sense. Against this backdrop, the average drug rep looks like a supermodel, or maybe an A-list movie star. Drug reps today are often young, well groomed, and strikingly good-looking. Many are women. They are usually affable and sometimes very smart. Many give off a kind of glow, as if they had just emerged from a spa or salon. And they are always, hands down, the best-dressed people in the hospital.

Short takes and breaking news from the Washington Legislature and the state capital.