Ward Wetherell is used to receiving health tips about such topics as 'good' cholesterol from Pfizer Inc. , the world's largest drug company. This month, however, the glossy brochure Pfizer sent to Wetherell's home in Needham tackled a national policy issue days after a crucial House of Representatives vote to lower prescription drug prices.
Congress needs to hear that market forces, not the government, should control prices, said the 'For Living' brochure, which included form letters addressed to Wetherell's representatives in Congress. 'History reminds us that when the government interferes in a free market and controls prices, the results can be dangerous,' it warned.
Industry lobbyists have rallied in speeches, television spots, and full-page print advertising that defends Medicare's year-old prescription drug benefit as a success story that saves seniors $1,200 per year.
But by fostering a so-called 'astroturf' movement -- an artificial grass-roots movement bankrolled by a corporation -- Pfizer's push-back breaks ground, according to a drug industry observer and a former drug industry sales representative.
Jack Cox , a Pfizer spokesman, declined to say how many fliers the company sent, how much the marketing effort cost, or whether it typically drafts form letters for consumers to send to Congress.
The package Pfizer sent to Wetherell included letters addressed to Representative Stephen Lynch and Senator Edward M. Kennedy , who represent the 72-year-old . Unlike the brochure, the letters did not mention Pfizer, but were preprinted with Wetherell's name and address. All he had to do was initial, fold and pop the letters into pre-stamped envelopes. By doing so, Wetherell, a bypass survivor, could instantly become an unpaid Pfizer lobbyist.
The Pfizer letters are beginning to trickle into congressional offices.
One senior who received the pitch decided to criticize Pfizer on its own dime: 'Pfizer asked me to sign and send. I do not agree with their view,' a Milton woman wrote to the Massachusetts Democrat [Representative Stephen Lynch]. 'They spend too much on sales and pushing lunches' for medical residents, she said.
[Senator Ted] Kennedy, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee, by Thursday had received fewer than 100 of the Pfizer letters, said a spokeswoman, Melissa Wagoner .
'As with any correspondence from a constituent, even form letters are taken seriously,' Wagoner said.
Because of that, Dr. Jerry Avorn , a Harvard Medical School professor , condemned the covert campaign as 'a distortion of the democratic process.'
Avorn, who tracks drug company marketing, said the industry has already 'succeeded in making patients into sales reps through direct-to-consumer advertising. Now, apparently, the next step is to make patients into lobbyists.'
Gene Carbona , a former Merck & Co. district sales manager, was struck that the letters came from Pfizer, not the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America , drug industry lobbyists. 'I've never seen a company make this move on their own, on behalf of themselves,' said Carbona, executive director of the Medical Letter , a subscriber-financed publication that reviews new medicines.
In my view, there is nothing wrong with a pharmaceutical company making its political opinions known. Pharmaceutical companies, like any other organization, have a right to state their opinions and participate openly in the political process.
The problem here is that the company is apparently trying to manipulate patients into making the company's pitch, in a way that disguises the origin of the message. It's akin to stealth marketing, so could it be called stealth lobbying?
It's another example of how the unopposed marketing mentality has taken over the management of pharmaceutical companies. The goal seems to be increase sales and increase company income, no matter who has to be manipulated to do so.
And the pharmaceutical company executives wonder why they inspire so little trust?