While corporations from Enron to WorldCom are feeling the heat for unethical business practices, few have their feet held to the fire for their improprieties — including those at meetings — like the pharmaceutical industry. ABC's Peter Jennings recently excoriated the industry on national television, and newspapers, including the Washington Post and the Boston Globe, slammed pharmaceutical supporters and exhibitors for perceived ethical malpractice at the American Psychiatric Association's annual meeting this spring.

There are legitimate reasons behind all the media hoopla: For example, in April, The Kaiser Family Foundation survey on Physician Incentives found that 61 percent of docs receive free meals, tickets to events, and free travel from drug companies, which spend $13 billion on promotion. (Meetings and events make up $2.3 billion of the total.) This study, along with recent kickback and pricing scandals in the industry, have led the media — and the public — to scream for some accountability when it comes to how much pharmaceutical companies can spend to woo doctors.

The issue has gotten so hot that the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America developed the voluntary Code on Interactions with Healthcare Professionals, which went into effect July

1. PhRMA's new code cuts back significantly on pharma spending for meeting-related marketing by insisting that meals be “modest,” that the companies can pay only for health care professionals to attend (not spouses), and that education must be at the core of the event — no more golf tournaments, concerts, or other high-end events.

“We decided that if we didn't take the lead, Congress would do it for us,” said Timothy Casady, deputy general counsel, Eli Lilly and Co., and chair of the PhRMA Legal Section during a presentation on the code at the Healthcare Convention & Exhibitors Association annual meeting in Toronto in late June.

While adherence to the code is voluntary because of antitrust considerations, according to Casady, the major U.S. pharmaceutical companies have signed on, and expectations are that compliance will be taken seriously. Top-level buy-in was assured from the start: It was developed with the cooperation of pharmaceutical company leaders. And companies can be assured that if they don't comply, their competitors will be the first to turn them in to the media, and the feeding frenzy would begin anew.

So where will all the money that won't be spent on lavish meals and entertainment at medical events go? The jury is still out, but, as Casady semi-joked, it'll probably end up going “to consultants paid to train people in the code!”