Shrinking sales forces face constraints

With times tough all over, pharma companies have been slashing costs any and every way--and often sales-force cuts are at the top of their lists. Big-name drugmakers have shed thousands of reps--Merck, GlaxoSmithKline, Schering-Plough, Wyeth, Novartis, Sanofi-Aventis, Bristol-Myers Squibb--often reorganizing those who remain.

The reps who have kept their jobs are facing constraints out in the field. Concerned about possible conflicts of interest, lawmakers in Massachusetts banned expensive gifts from pharma reps, and all gifts worth more than $50 have to be disclosed. Teaching hospitals such as University of Pittsburgh Medical Center won’t allow pharma freebies, and if the American Association of Medical Colleges has its way, no med school will accept gifts, travel or ghostwriting services from drugmakers.

Some physician practices have instituted "no see" policies barring reps from their offices. Carolinas Healthcare System, among other teaching hospitals, has banned its docs from handing out drug samples, one of the big tools reps use to promote new meds. And the District of Columbia now requires pharma reps to be licensed.

Meanwhile, the industry association PhRMA has adopted a marketing code meant to police sales-rep conduct. As of January 1, companies that have signed on to the new policy won’t be handing out pens, mugs, T-shirts, or any other tchotchkes, not just in Massachusetts, but in all 50 states. The policy also reiterates a ban on more expensive gifts like sports tickets and junkets. So 2009 could be remembered as the year drugmakers told logo pens to rest in peace.

Free office lunches and restaurant meals are still allowed under PhRMA’s policy, however, as long as an educational presentation goes along with the food. And if sales reps are lucky, the spotlight will move to another group that’s allegedly subject to drugmaker influence--the media.