-- 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."
Included in his prepared remarks, Ahari cites a quote from a senior marketing executive at Parke-Davis: "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."
A spokesman for Parke-Davis did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment.
A spokesman for Eli-Lilly emphasized that Ahari's testimony didn't allege any specific product misconduct on the part of the company but rather focused on industry practice.
"We think his examples are exaggerated. We have policies in place that allow us to engage in interactions with health care professionals at an appropriate level and they are intended to provide information about our products so that they will be able to make appropriate medical decisions for their patients," the spokesman said.
One doctor who says he has resisted the pitches of sales reps is Dr. Jerome P. Kassirer, a professor at Tufts University School of Medicine.
"I don't see drug reps and haven't seen them for probably 35 years," he tells ABCNews.com's Audrey Grayson. "One important question: why would the drug industry spend so much money on advertising if they didn't think they were influencing physicians? The notion that this is all for physician education is nonsense."
Democrats in Congress are pushing for a bill to counter the pharmaceutical companies' sales campaigns by paying nurses, pharmacists and other health professionals to present objective academic literature on prescription drugs to doctors.
A drug industry group, Coalition for Healthcare Communication, is not opposed to the measure but questioned the role of politicians and the federal government.
"The First Amendment provides everyone with a right to speak, including Uncle Sam," John Kamp, CHC director told the Associated Press. "But I question whether the federal government needs to be in the business of countering pharmaceutical sales."