Ex-Drug Sales Rep Tells All

Former Eli Lilly rep: gift-giving and minimizing drug side-effects part of job.

ByABC News
March 12, 2008, 1:29 PM

— -- To sell their drugs, pharmaceutical companies hire former cheerleaders and ex-models to wine and dine doctors, exaggerate the drug's benefits and underplay their side-effects, a former sales rep told a Congressional committee this morning.

Shahram Ahari, who spent two years selling Prozac and Zypraxa for Eli Lily, told a Senate Aging Committee chaired by Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wisc., that his job involved "rewarding physicians with gifts and attention for their allegiance to your product and company despite what may be ethically appropriate."

Ahari claims that drug companies like hiring former cheerleaders and ex-models, as well as former athletes and members of the military, many of whom have no background in science.

"On my first day of sales class, among 21 trainees and two instructors, I was the only one with any level of college-level science education," Ahari told ABCNews.com on Tuesday.

During their five-week training class, Ahari claims that instructors teach sales tactics, including how to exceed spending limits for important clients, being generous with free samples to leverage sales, using friendships and personal gifts to foster a "quid pro quo" relationship, and how to exploit sexual tension.

"The nature of this business is gift-giving," says Ahari. He claims that he's heard stories about sales reps helping to pay the cost of a doctor's swimming pool and another doctor who was routinely taken to a nightclub where a hostess was paid to keep him company.

Drug reps develop a positive view of their drug and a negative view of the competitors, according to Ahari. "You drink the Kool-Aid. We were taught to minimize the side effects and how to use conversational ploys to minimize it or to change the topic."

According to Ahari, the benefits could be lucrative for sales reps, who tended to earn more than researchers. On top of a base salary for starting reps of $50,000, "there were four quarterly bonuses, an annual bonus, stock options, a car, 401K, great health benefits, and a $60,000 expense account."