Thursday, January 5, 2012

On Stephen Colbert, Super PACs, and Industry-Supported CME

The current New York Times Magazine carries a fascinating and quite hilarious profile of Stephen Colbert, of the Colbert Report. Colbert is well known for his parody of a know-nothing rabidly conservative Republican commentator—but according to the article he has taken his comedy into the real world, involving himself directly in those shady instruments of electioneering known as “super PACs.”

For those who haven’t followed super PACs, they are the political equivalent of the CME industry’s Medical Education Communication Companies (MECCs). Super PACs can take unlimited amounts of money from corporations, then turn around and use the money to promote candidates of their choosing—with the stipulation that they are not directly “coordinating” with their favorite candidates, whatever that means.  Analogously, MECCs can take unlimited amounts of money from drug companies, then turn around and use the money to pay doctors to promote the company’s products—with the stipulation that they cannot coordinate their CME courses directly with drug companies, again, whatever that means.

In both examples, a third party is being used by corporations to circumvent an inconvenient regulation. In the case of super PACs, companies can circumvent Federal  Election Commission (FEC) rules that limit campaign contributions to a maximum of $2500 per individual (super PACs can accept millions from individuals). In the case of MECCs, drug companies circumvent ACCME Standards for Commercial Support forbidding direct payments to doctors for CME, by laundering the money in the form of  educational grants to third party CME companies.

Colbert, in an effort to expose how corrupt super PACs are, has actually started his own super PAC, entitled "Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow."  As quoted in the Times article, Colbert facetiously defends his and other super PACs by pointing out that they are “100 percent legal and at least 10 percent ethical.”

I’ve never heard a better characterization of industry-supported CME.  Let’s hope that Colbert continues his unorthodox lessons in the ways of money, corporations, and corruption.  For his next project, I suggest he start his own MECC, named, perhaps, “The Institute for Healthcare Education and Prescription Promotion.” 


Sean said...

Stephen Colbert is using his fame and comedy to benefit the common good. Way to bring attention to a matter that has the possibility of allowing corporations to wrangle an inordinate amount of power and radically change society in an unbridled and undemocratic way.

ShrinkWapped said...

Perhaps if the FDA didn't impose costs in excess of a billion dollars to bring a drug to market, the drug companies wouldn't be so eager to skate on the ethical line.

Michael S. Altus, PhD, ELS said...

But, ShrinkWapped (Jan. 5, 2012 4:58 PM), the FDA didn’t impose costs in excess of a billion dollars on S. E. Massengill Pharmaceutical Company to bring Elixir of Sulfanilamide to market in 1937. The antibacterial sulfanilamide was dissolved in diethylene glycol, a known toxin. As a result of the disaster, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FDC) Act of 1938 was enacted to require that new drugs show safety before marketing. For more information about the Elixir of Sulfanilamide disaster, see the scholarly and well-written articles on the Pathophilia blog (

Becky said...

People have to be responsible for their own conduct. Referring to the egregious criminal behavior of the drug industry as skating 'on the ethical line,' is like saying the Grand Canyon is a ditch.

Anonymous said...

LOVE Becky's comment!! Will be quoting that one!