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The Truth About Free Samples

Free Samples

Many pharmaceutical companies give free samples to doctors in an attempt to increase the overall pervasiveness of their drug brands. It is, in its own way, a form of marketing to give these free samples to doctors for the simple reason that free samples are inherently alluring to consumers. If someone can avoid paying for a drug sample, then he or she would love to do so. Doctors and patients alike know this. As a result, free samples are a highly effective way to ensure that a given pharmaceutical company's drug will find its way into consumer hands and will, therefore, lead to a greater prevalence for that drug. To call taking free samples the same thing as accepting bribes is perhaps a little strong, at least at first glance. After all, the free samples being given out by the pharmaceutical companies are free and seem oriented towards helping the consumer, not necessarily the doctor being given the free samples. One of the most important elements to successfully mounting bribery charges is to clearly determine that element of quid pro quo, "this for that," that defines bribery. In the case of free samples, the quid pro quo element appears absent. But is this enough to save doctors who take free samples from accusations of accepting bribes? The problem with free samples is that too often their effect is similar to that of a bribe, without necessarily looking like a bribe. Doctors will reach first for their supply of free samples to give to patients both because the sample is readily available and because it is free. This is especially true of doctors who want to help patients, who understand the rising costs of drugs and realize the boon that a free sample of a drug might be to a patient. As such, these doctors reach for the free samples first. But some have argued that this is exactly the source of the problem. As David J. Rothman, president of the Institute on Medicine as a Profession, said, "The question to the doctor is: If you didn't have it in your drawer, would that have been your drug of choice?" Similarly, a study showed that the number of doctors who used the drugs recommended by national guidelines increased greatly when these doctors no longer had free samples. If they had free samples, then instead of using these "first line" drugs, they were giving out those free samples. The acceptance and use of free samples skirts dangerously close to accepting bribes on the part of the doctor and deserving of bribery charges on the part of the pharmaceutical company. All evidence points to the fact that free samples greatly benefit the pharmaceutical companies, simply by making their drugs more commonly used and prescribed, whether or not doctors mean to do so illegitimately. But there are benefits to the use of free samples, not the least of which is that the samples allow doctors to determine if an individual can be helped by a given drug before he or she goes out and buys a full supply of that drug. In the end, however, even if the practice does not necessarily fall into the same category as bribery charges, it seems to be more trouble than it may be worth, as the entire practice is designed to manipulate doctors, if not outright bribe them. The drugs being given as free samples are often new drugs which the doctors do not have much experience with and cannot judge as accurately. This, combined with the fact that doctors seem to almost subconsciously dispense the free samples more often, paints the entire practice in a starkly negative light.

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