Photo: First Horizon Pharmaceuticals Drug Rep Cristin Duren competing for Miss America
There is no such thing as a free lunch or an ugly drug rep. I was reminded of this several weeks ago as I Ashley and I sat in a waiting room at a local clinic. Most patients were half-heartedly eyeing archaic issues of Home & Garden or glancing at the Sanford and Sons reruns on TVLand. There was, however, a group that did not fit this mold. I counted three of them (two men and one woman) and heaven help me I couldn’t spot a pimple or facial scar between them. The men were dressed in immaculate suits which served to compliment with their chiseled jaw lines and olive-skinned complexions. The lone woman was a tall blond dressed in a rather strategic dress and heels. All were armed with “business cases” and the knowledge that they were the only ones actually getting paid to sit in the waiting room.
After the appointment, I began asking friends if they had ever spotted a physically unattractive drug rep of either gender. I don’t mean Quasimodo or Larry Bird unattractive, just someone your spouse wouldn’t leave you for immediately. When we all drew a blank, I began wondering if being hot was a pre-requisite for a pharmaceutical sales technician or I was just reading too much into it. Surely it was just a coincidence that all the pharmaceutical sales associates I had ever encountered seemed to have won some sort of genetic lottery. According to a 2005 article by the New York Times, widespread drug rep hotness is no coincidence.
The article highlighted Cassie Napier, a 26 year old drug rep for TAP Pharmaceutical Products whose previous claim to fame was a star cheerleader on the University of Kentucky cheerleading squad. This was no accident as Ms. Napier, like 24 other members of Kentucky’s squad, were specifically recruited by drug companies. A school staff member employed within the cheerleading program explained that he frequently gets call from pharmaceutical company recruiters who want the names of recently graduated cheerleaders. “They don’t ask what the major is,” he admitted.
Cassie’s story is not unique; First Horizon Pharmaceuticals employs Cristin Duren, who was given a special leave of absence to compete in the Miss America pageant. A spokesperson for the Washington Redskins admitted that several members of their cheerleading squad were currently employed as drug reps; some other notable pharmaceutical beauties include Mia Heaston (a former Miss Illinois), Cameron Haven (a model for Playboy), and Diana Chiafair (professional swimsuit model and Miss FHM 2007.) The trend has become so blatant that entire businesses have been formed for the singular purpose of matching cheerleaders with pharmaceutical companies looking for “pharma babes.”
One of the most successful examples of this is Spirited Sales Leaders, a Memphis-based corporation founded in 2003 that charges a $2,500 fee once you successfully land a pharmaceutical sales job. Owner Gregory C. Webb got the idea for the business after observing “several hundred” former cheerleaders being hired as drug reps. Their site even displays a success wall that lists former clients who have been matched with a pharmaceutical company.
How is this possible you ask? Isn’t this a form of discrimination? The answer tends to be a bit more complicated as there are currently no laws that prohibit hiring attractive candidates. As long the company does not refuse to hire based on religion, race, or gender; they are not violating any Federal statutes. In other words, a sign outside of Pfizer might read:
We are an equal opportunity employer (as long as you are smokin’)
So what do the drug companies say about selecting the more esthetically pleasing populace to represent their wares? Pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb, in response to the New York Times article, claims that industry hiring practices are based on “personality” and not looks. They claim that the inordinate number of cheerleaders in their ranks is due to their tendency to be “extroverts, good conversationalists, and pleasant to talk to.” And men read Playboy for the hard hitting journalism….
Former Prozac rep Shahram Ahari, testified before a senate committee that the drug companies may be interested in cheerleaders and ex-models for more than their “personalities.” He revealed that while working for pharmaceutical giant Eli Lily, new employees were trained in the art of fostering “quid pro quo” relationships and exploiting sexual tension with doctors. On the first day of “sales class” Ahari learned that he was the only one in the room (including 21 other trainees and 2 instructors) that had received any college-level science education.
How can they afford to pay $60,000 dollars to former cheerleaders with no science background? The answer is simple; they are worth every penny in the revenue that they generate. In 2007, AstraZeneca fired a sales executive Mike Zubillaga after his interview in an internal company newsletter went public. In the interview, Mr. Zubillaga offered the following advice to his sales reps when they visited a doctor:
“There is a big bucket of money sitting in every office. Every time you go in, you reach your hand in the bucket and grab a handful. The more times you are in, the more money goes in your pocket. Every time you make a call, you are looking to make more money.”
The remarks became especially infuriating when it was revealed that Zubillaga and his sales staff dealt exclusively with cancer medication. Once an employee posted the interview on the Internet, AstraZeneca quickly fired the executive because his viewpoint “violates a core value of serving patients.” The company did not explain why such offensive sales advice would be published and distributed to their employees in the first place as part of the official company newsletter.
This mindset is not unique to AstraZeneca, former Parke-Davis pharmaceutical rep David Franklin sued his former employer for forcing him to market drugs off-label (other than their approved uses) and making false claims. He cited a senior sales executive at the company who told him:
"I want you out there every day selling Neurotonin. Neurotonin is more profitable than Accupril, so we need to focus on Neurotonin. Pain management, now that's money…. I don't want to see a single patient coming off Neurotonin before they've been up to at least 4,800 milligrams a day. I don't want to hear that safety crap, either."
The problem is that Neurotonin was only approved for use in seizure patients at the time but the sales staff was pushing doctors to prescribe it for everything from migraines to bi-polar disorder. In 2004, the company was ordered to pay $430 million in fines for their marketing practices of the drug, which many felt was an ineffective slap on the wrist considering the company’s proceeds from the medication exceeded $3 billion.
How do such practices go unregulated? Why is the Neurotonin case the exception rather than the rule? Well, when you make a lot of money you can afford to spend a lot of money. In a recent report from the Center for Responsive Politics, it was revealed that pharmaceutical companies spent over $900 million on government lobbying between 1998 and 2005. This was more than any other industry in the same time period, and almost 90 million of that went directly to federal candidates and committee members and nearly three-fourths of the cash went to Republican candidates.
That is not to say Republicans are the only ones taking incentives, in the 2004 presidential race the pharmaceutical companies donated significant amounts to both Bush and Kerry’s campaigns and I would imagine that any congressional donations tend to lean toward the current majority. In an interview with The Washington Post, Republican Senator Charles Grassley admitted, "You can hardly swing a cat by the tail in Washington without hitting a pharmaceutical lobbyist.” Although the comment was meant in jest, it reveals a simple truth: there are currently 2 drug lobbyists for every member of Congress.
So is there any hope for oversight and responsible prescription marketing practices? In 2001 the American Medical Association launched a campaign to educate doctors about the ethical perils of pharmaceutical gifts. The program was funded by pharmaceutical companies.