There’s No Free Lunch With MS

There’s no free dinner, either.  Recently in one week I ate in three nice restaurants and had fine meals, three days in a row, all of them compliments of the pharmaceutical companies that are reaping profits from MS drugs.  Want to know what I was eating?  Twice I had soup, salad and filet mignon, and the third meal,  I was encouraged to order whatever I wanted from the menu. These are not simple, inexpensive blue plate special lunches. All told, between the three meals, there were about 70 people at Pharma’s table. Best of all, there was no bill for me or any of the others there to pay, or at least not at the end of the meal in the form of a server’s check.

For some reason, my tiny little corner of southwest Ohio has a steady stream of lunches and dinners offered to our MS community.  Perhaps it’s because we have great drug reps who really like to treat us to meals to stretch our household budgets.  Or maybe it’s because one out of approximately every 700-800 people in Ohio has Multiple Sclerosis, and they are hoping we can be persuaded by the information being offered to make a treatment decision in favor of their brand.

The reality check, though, is those free lunches we get aren’t free. We pay for them by giving our time to sit through the latest drug presentation – around here these talks are almost always given by a neurologist who specializes in MS.  If there is no neurologist, then it defaults to an MS nurse who gives the talk.  We, or our insurance, are also paying for them if we decide to choose their drug as our treatment of choice.

Because I am very active with the local MS community, I know most of the MS drug company sales reps and have helped to make our people aware of these presentations.  There are regulars at these meals who make no excuse – they are there because of the free food and nothing else because it can be a budget stretcher.  No one is being forced to give up their time to attend and almost always we walk away not only with a full stomach but also new information. The speaker is required to stick to the official presentation, an officially prepared and approved by the company’s legal office,  power point slide show with much of the same information over and over, regardless of which drug is being highlighted.  The speaker is also compensated for their time with an honorarium.  It appears to me that one goes uncompensated in some form or another at these talks.

There are always slides about multiple sclerosis - what is MS, where are MS lesions found, how is MS diagnosed, and tips on talking to our doctors about MS treatments.  Then there are the product specific slides which talk about efficacy, relapse rate reductions and how the company’s patient support program can make this drug affordable for all of us, unless you happen to be on government insurance and then you might be out of luck.

This practice of offering meals and talks is controversial, with many people not approving, saying these pharmaceutical companies are unfairly trying to influence us to take their drugs and consequently, the talks are highly regulated by the FDA. The information the speaker is allowed to give about a particular drug is limited by this governing agency. I attend as many of these talks as I can fit into my schedule, and it’s certainly not for the meals because I have had more than my share of tasteless chicken dinners. The best part of these talks is after the presenter has made it through the official slide program, without fail, they have always taken other questions about MS.  From these Q&A sessions, I gather information that I share in online MS forums and write about in my blogs; being able to listen to and question a variety of medical personnel in addition to my own neurologist, gives an added perspective to the current MS scene.

I’m not kidding myself or anyone else about the purpose of these meals - these companies really want our business.  There’s a lot of profit in these drugs and treating us to lunch or dinner can be a good way for the pharmaceutical company to grab the consumer’s attention and that perhaps their brand of MS treatment is better than the competitor’s offering. The direct to the consumer marketing approach is not new for prescription drug manufacturers. However, I can find nowhere else in medical treatments for chronic diseases where  the patients are courted so heavily as in the world of Multiple Sclerosis.  Not only is MS an expensive disease, it is also a highly profitable one and they all want our attention.

Have you attended a mealtime talk sponsored a pharmaceutical company?

The next time you get a mailing or a notice in your inbox that there is a special program in your area, try to take advantage of the opportunity.  You get to meet others with MS, you will hear a presentation from MS experts where you might learn something new, and most of all you will get that ‘free’ meal that you have helped to pay for in so many ways.

Wishing you well,


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