Internet pharmacy’s presence at NAVC riles veterinarians

PetMed Express to exhibit, sponsor educational series

Revised: November 30, 2011
Published: November 29, 2011

By Jennifer Fiala

Veterinarians are using Facebook to let NAVC know how they feel about PetMed Express exhibiting at the convention.
The Facebook posts are sporadic, but their words reflect anger and frustration that one of the profession’s most reviled players plans to appear at arguably the largest convention for veterinarians: North American Veterinary Conference (NAVC) in Orlando.

“I just want to express my disappointment (in) NAVC for allowing PetMed Express to exhibit! This company has done nothing but paint veterinarians in a poor light and I find it disrespectful that they will be exhibiting,” Dr. Glenda Paredes-Smith wrote last week on the NAVC Facebook page.

“SERIOUSLY? They are an exhibit?” responded Kate Odum. “That is pretty disgusting honestly. NAVC has more pride than that.”

“I wholeheartedly agree!!” exclaimed Dr. Elizabeth Little Sigman. “What has 1-800-PetMeds done for the veterinary community besides accuse us of ‘charging exorbitant prices’ on national TV?!”

The backlash isn’t going unnoticed by NAVC. On Facebook, convention officials write that the concerns of veterinarians “have been taken to heart.” 

NAVC’s Board of Directors explained in a statement to the VIN News Service that they aren’t “in a position to discriminate or refuse a request to exhibit from a company in the veterinary healthcare industry."

"In accepting 1-800 PetMeds as an exhibitor, we hope to be in a position to educate them about the importance of working with veterinarians instead of against them,” the statement said. 

Gail Cummings, exhibits manager and administrative coordinator for NAVC, said the company paid $3,000 for booth space in the Marriott World Center Orlando and is sponsoring a session on holistic medicine for an undisclosed amount. Companies must purchase booth space in order to sponsor sessions, per NAVC policy. 

Roughly 5,500 veterinarians and 1,400 technicians attended NAVC last year. The four-day conference is held at the Marriott and Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center. It kicks off Jan. 14.

PetMed Express, commonly known as 1-800-PetMeds, made its online debut in 1996. Since then, the company based in Pompano Beach, Fla., has been a thorn in the side of veterinarians, first selling prescription medications illegally and then working to undercut practitioners on sales of pet parasiticides that are acquired via gray market channels

Pharmacy sales are a traditional revenue stream for many private veterinary practices, offsetting the high costs of equipment and overhead. Since the late 1990s, competition from a growing number of pharmacies and major retailers entering the pet-products market has eroded that source of income.

Now competition and the economic downturn have hit PetMed Express. The publicly traded company missed its estimates last quarter, and at the end of October, officials revealed that net income fell to $3.9 million for the quarter ending Sept. 30, compared with $5 million reported during the same time last year. PetMed Express’ total earnings are down 40 percent for the year. 

During an Oct. 24 conference call with investors, PetMed Express pointed to the fact that competitors such as Wal-Mart and PetSmart now sell Frontline, the nation’s top-selling spot-on flea prevention product, at competitive prices. To make up for the loss in sales, PetMed Express plans to market a generic version of the pet parasiticide in 2012. 
Officials with the online pharmacy could not be reached for comment, but one strategy for attracting customers has been television advertisements. Lately, the ads feature a veterinarian endorsing PetMed Express.

On the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community for the profession, veterinarians shared their contempt for the advertisement and the company’s planned appearance at NAVC. The controversy arose on the heels of debate on VIN about the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association's decision to feature online pet pharmacy Drs. Foster & Smith as an advertiser. Some on VIN predicted that PetMed Express might promote its association with NAVC to stage an impression that the online pharmacy works with veterinarians, thus boosting its credibility.

“So now they are trying to win us all over by telling us that they are our colleagues and our friends in a weak attempt to capture the business they are fearful of losing,” wrote Dr. Debbie Taranik of Apple Valley, Calif., in a VIN discussion. “NAVC should be ashamed.”

In reality, veterinarians have, for years, treated PetMed Express with disdain, so much so that some initially refused to sign prescriptions for clients stating plans to purchase drugs from the online pharmacy, which was fined by regulators for illegal practices. Nowadays, refusing to script out isn't commonplace. Laws in many state require that veterinarians provide prescriptions if requested by clients, and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) deems prescription-writing an ethical obligation.

When it comes to discriminating among prospective exhibitors, the AVMA exercises its right to exclude exhibitors it deems controversial from its annual convention. Exhibitor applications are reviewed based on criteria that includes: value to the association’s overall membership; relationship to the veterinary profession; previous participation at the AVMA convention; available space; and messages espousing philosophies or practices contrary to AVMA policies and position statements. 

The AVMA used these principles to revoke the booth space of the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights (AVAR) in 2004, after the group helped to pay for a full-page advertisement in the New York Times that chastised the AVMA for its animal welfare policies. At the time, AVAR represented 2,900 veterinarians, most of them AVMA members. 

Offering another viewpoint is Dr. Guy Pidgeon, chief executive officer of the Western Veterinary Conference (WVC). He explained most veterinary conferences are not tied to political organizations like the AVMA, so refusing booth space to would-be exhibitors is touchy. 

Held every February in Las Vegas, WVC is slightly larger than NAVC in terms of veterinarian attendance (though NAVC often beats WVC in total numbers of conference goers). Pidgeon said that PetMed Express has not asked to exhibit, but that doesn’t mean it will never happen. 

“It’s harder for a group like us or NAVC because we’re true trade shows,” he said. “We have the right to insist that a company exhibiting operates according to veterinary ethics. But we have to be very liberal about who we allow on the floor." 

Not so, said Jerald Jacobs, a Washingon, D.C.-based attorney, author and one of the nation's foremost legal experts on non-profit law including anti-trust and trade regulation. In an interview with the VIN News Service, he explained that trade show owners, private or non-profit, have the right to exclude exhibitors for almost any reason.

"Case law suggests that non-profit professional organizations can, in fact, be arbitrary in deciding who exhibits and does not exhibit," he said. "The theory of those cases is the same as that of a retail store, which does not have to admit every customer and can be arbitrary about deciding who it can sell to. Likewise, the owner of a trade show owns this medium of marketing and can make decisions on any basis or no basis at all as who gets to be there."

He added that if excluding an exhibitor leads to an outright economic advantage or other form of anti-competitiveness, "there might be some concern." But that's "unlikely," he said. 

WVC's Pidgeon said he'd be “hard-pressed" to exclude PetMed Express if the company wanted to exhibit. "I’d have to think it through long and hard before saying no,” he said. 


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