It’s pretty ironic when you think about it. In order to promote its weight-loss and diabetes drugs, Novo Nordisk bought doctors almost a half a million meals in 2022. As reported by STAT’s Nick Florkopic, Novo Nordisk spent $11 million entertaining doctors and other prescribers to educate them on the virtues of its GLP-1 drugs including the highly sought after Ozempic and Wegovy. That’s a lot of food to influence weight loss in Americans. Novo Nordisk’s efforts must have indeed been successful as there were shortages of Ozempic at the end of the year. People even tried to go to Canada to get it.
All drug companies need to promote their medicines to physicians in order to teach the medical community about the pros and cons of their new therapies. Obviously, the purpose of these meetings is to drive sales. Fortunately, the costs incurred in having these education sessions are all publicly available thanks to the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, which is part of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). Every pharma company is required to list all payments in excess of $10 made to any physician it works with. Thus, all of this is above board.
However, the Novo Nordisk data are eye-popping. The company paid for food for almost 12,000 prescribers more than a dozen times last year. More than 200 had in excess of 50 meals paid for by the company, and one doctor, a frequent advocate for Novo Nordisk, recorded a whopping 193. One has to wonder if this particular physician had any time to practice medicine.
As was said, all companies do this. But, it is interesting to compare Novo Nordisk’s expenses with those of its chief competitor in the GLP-1 agonist field, Eli Lilly. In promoting its drugs Mounjaro and Trulicity, Lilly bought doctors 184,000 meals amounting to roughly $3.5 million—a third of Novo Nordisk’s spend. Clearly, Novo Nordisk is betting an inordinate amount on Ozempic/Wegovy.
A company makes strategic decisions on how best to spend its money to drive sales and has every right to outspend its competition. But the optics of Novo Nordisk’s behavior are horrible. At a time when the U.S. government has mandated price negotiations for Medicare drugs, and when patients continue to voice concerns about drug pricing, the news that a company is buying hundreds of thousands of meals for doctors only fortifies negative views about the industry. It is particularly ironic that the GLP-1 agonist class of diabetes/weight loss has generated more free press coverage than any other class of drugs in recent memory. One wonders if these drugs really need such a hard sell.
Interestingly, Novo Nordisk didn’t address the meals issue when it responded to STAT’s story. Instead, it focused its response on the millions it has spent paying for travel to exotic for these doctors to speak about Ozempic. They justifiably point out that they don’t the locations where international meetings occurred.
The biopharma industry has worked very hard to help improve its image, especially with its admirable work during the Covid-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, buying a doctor 193 meals to help sell a drug doesn’t help improve the industry’s image.
(John L. LaMattina is the former president of Pfizer Global R&D and the author of Pharma & Profits – Balancing Innovation, Medicines, And Drug Prices.)