Albright: Free Food Fight

Mar 29, 2017

Vermont lawmakers are currently chewing over “an act relating to providing meals to health care providers at conferences.”

According to the Vermont Medical Society, Vermont clinicians have been singled out and refused food and beverage, prevented from attending portions of educational events at which food and beverage were offered, and asked to repay the cost of meals – even snacks - provided after a conference sponsor learns that the attendee is from Vermont.

The Medical Society wants to amend state law to allow attendees at medical education conferences to accept buffet meals, snacks, soft drinks or coffee without having to report those freebies. So far, the measure seems to be encountering little opposition.

Journalists, of course, are in a similar boat. Both professions, in order to remain credible and ethical, need to steer clear of conflicts of interest. When I was a reporter, I can remember covering town meetings and resisting a complimentary slice of pie from the fellow citizen who made it, for fear of being perceived as accepting a bribe - since that same pie-maker might later speak for or against something I was reporting on.

The question is whether free food induces people to make unethical decisions after they eat it. Are doctors really basing prescriptions on which pharmaceutical company serves the best croissants and coffee, or is Big Pharma passive-aggressively keeping Vermont doctors out of meetings as punishment for our laws against influence peddling?

I decided to get professional advice on all this - from my doctor. He goes to lots of medical conferences and so far hasn’t been excluded because he’s from Vermont. He also generally doesn’t consider this the biggest problem facing our health care system. But I do want him to eat well. And in fact, I know that some of his patients have been known to pay him with fresh poultry from the farm. So if this bill doesn’t pass, maybe he could just pack a chicken sandwich the next time he attends a seminar, just in case – possibly a better option than what’s on the buffet table.

Either way, I’m okay with this amendment, as long as the portions involved are more compatible with a buffet napkin – than a big dinner plate.