No Free Lunch was miffed when the American Academy of Family Physicians, Leawood, Kan., initially declined its request to exhibit at the AAFP Annual Meeting in San Francisco in September. No Free Lunch is a New York — based organization that encourages healthcare providers to decline all pharmaceutical industry gifts as part of its mission to encourage them to base their practice on evidence, not pharma promotions.

No Free Lunch's director, Robert Goodman, MD, received a letter stating that the organization's position was “not within the character and purpose of the scientific assembly” and so didn't meet the Academy's eligibility requirements. Scathing writeups on the matter were posted to the No Free Lunch Web site, and the organization mobilized its members to ask AAFP to reverse its decision, which it did shortly before the convention began.

Douglas Henley, MD, AAFP's executive vice president, says it was all a mistake, and the fault lies with him. “I tell our staff that I like to approach business from a standpoint of assuming good intent, and I did not do that in the case of No Free Lunch.” He explains that he had information from “at least one of our other colleague associations that No Free Lunch had caused some disruption at other annual meetings.”

While Henley did not name this “colleague association,” the American College of Physicians, Philadelphia, had refused No Free Lunch a spot at its expo in April.

According to a statement from John Mitas II, MD, the College's chief operating officer, a physician claiming to be a No Free Lunch representative had escorted investigative reporters with a hidden camera into the exhibit hall at its 2001 Annual Session exhibit hall. This violated the College's policy regarding media representation and exhibitors, which prohibits the use of cameras, as well as interference with exhibitors, in the hall.

“The College welcomes dialogue and representation of different points of view about issues of concern to the medical profession, but we also have a responsibility to our members to ensure that all exhibitors agree to terms of engagement on how they will operate on the exhibit floor,” said Mitas in his statement.

Henley made his initial decision based on similar concerns. After speaking with Goodman, however, Henley said, “We assessed that their exhibit would in fact be appropriate for our setting, and if they would agree to abide by the rules of our exhibit hall, as all exhibitors have to do, then they'd be welcome.”

No Free Lunch did have one minor violation, Henley says, when medical students representing the organization outside the convention center handed out brochures that, along with directing people to their booth, contained disparaging remarks about some of the other exhibitors, which ranged from pharmaceutical companies to Coca-Cola and McDonalds. “We brought the incident to their attention, and they stopped, so everything was fine,” says Henley.

“I told my board that I take responsibility for the initial decision, and shame on me for not assuming good intent,” he adds. “It's not the way I like to communicate with people, but it ended up working out fine for them and for us. I anticipate that they'll apply to exhibit at our meeting in Washington, D.C., next year. Assuming they agree to follow the same requests we had this year, it should turn out just fine.”