The American Medical Association's controversial pact with Sunbeam Corp. last year led its members to ban future consumer product endorsements.
But uproar over the AMA deal hasn't stopped another medical society from lending its name to companies willing to pay.
The American Medical Women's Association, which is unrelated to the AMA, recently granted its Seal of Acceptance to Nature Made vitamins. The vitamin company is featuring the seal, for which it paid $75,000, in a national ad campaign that started last month.
The AMWA represents about 10,000 of the nation's 130,000 women physicians. It says its Product Acceptance Program, which has been in place since 1986, is a public service.
"We don't review products as a way of increasing revenue. We review products as a way of enhancing women's health," program Director Tangie Newborn said.
She said the AMWA charges a one-time "product acceptance fee" of $25,000 for each item reviewed by the AMWA's Scientific Evaluation Council. The fee was assessed three times, once each for the brand's calcium supplements, multivitamins and vitamin E. The fee is supposed to cover program costs.
But some critics don't see it that way. They say the program appears to be a money grab, not much different in ethical terms from the AMA's agreement to lend its name and logo to Sunbeam's line of home health products in exchange for royalties based on product sales.
That decision led to the resignation of five high-ranking AMA officials, including Executive Vice President P. John Seward, M.D., and a $20 million breach of contract lawsuit. Sunbeam sued the AMA after industrywide criticism caused the association to back out of the endorsement deal.
"While there may be some marginal differences from what the AMA did with Sunbeam, it's basically the same thing," said Arnold Relman, M.D., former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine. "It's depressing to see medical professional organizations confusing themselves with for-profit organizations."
While critics say corporate deals erode public confidence in the medical profession, the AMWA actually hopes to enhance its image through the Nature Made campaign.
The Alexandria, Va.-based AMWA has granted seals to 18 products, ranging from feminine hygiene items to a cervical cancer screening test, since 1986. But its seals went largely unnoticed until the Nature Made commercials.
Newborn said the AMWA was previously unfamiliar to consumers, according to Nature Made marketing research, and the ads attempt to build a virtuous image of the organization. One of the two spots shows women physicians treating rural patients in the early 20th century. The other shows a young woman caring for injured soldiers during World War I.
"They chose to educate the consumer as to who we are so they could see why it was important to have the Seal of Acceptance," Newborn said. "That was a marketing move they made, which we thank them for."
Nature Made decided to build its entire marketing campaign around the AMWA, said Phillip Sontag, a spokesman for Mission Hills, Calif.-based Pharmavite, maker of Nature Made. The seal "really is a point of difference between Nature Made and its competitors," he said.
But it's unclear what that means. Even Newborn admits the seal doesn't mean the product is superior to anything else on the market. "Another vitamin company could approach us," and it would be considered for a seal, she said.
Applicants for the seal must provide scientific evidence that their product enhances women's health, she said. The evidence is reviewed by the AMWA's six-member Scientific Evaluation Council.
"Using Nature Made as an example, they had to prove how calcium would enhance women's health, and so they chose osteoporosis and built their application around that," Newborn said.
Newborn said in the past two years at least, the AMWA has not rejected any products.
While the AMWA views the program as furthering its mission of enhancing women's healthcare, some consumer advocates questioned whether the seal does anything but increase costs for consumers. Many health products including vitamins are already regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
"I'm not sure that (seal) adds any value or benefit for the consumer," said Larry Sasick, a pharmacist and research analyst at Washington-based watchdog group Public Citizen.
The AMWA plans to hike its product acceptance fee this year, but the new amount has not been disclosed.