Tonight after work I’ll be heading off to Ruth’s Chris steakhouse to enjoy some of the finest steaks money can buy. No, it’s not an early Valentine’s dinner; it’s a drug company sponsored teaching seminar on the merits of its fine products.

It’s sort of sad that the only way drug companies (anyone, really) can manage to get a bunch of vets into one room is to offer free food. In Miami it goes one step further—they have to offer really good food.

Talk about herding cats: if you don’t bring the Friskies you’ll never get them to do anything.

Veterinary drug companies have finally taken a page out of both Washington lobbyist and human pharma playbooks: Throw them a tasty bone, schmooze and booze them, then count up the thank-you scripts they write or the bills they sign. This is how it works, even in the newly reformed [ahem] world of lobbying and medicine.

Vet medicine has historically been left out of this loop of luxury—for one reason: there was never enough money in what we did for big pharma to start throwing big bucks our way.

But all that has changed. Pets are now considered big business—and a growing one at that. So these big guys have started in on us vets, treating us to lavish dinners and little boondoggles for those of us lucky enough to have big-spending clienteles.

I’ve written on this topic a couple of times before this. So you may well ask why I find it so post-worthy. I guess it’s because it’s an area of what we vets do that poses significant ethical challenges for our profession. And because it amuses me to find that after years in practice being fed pizzas and Cokes by these drug reps, we vets have suddenly graduated to Ruth’s Chris. I found the pizza humorous enough. In fact, I was satisfied with the dog food Hill’s gave us in vet school.

The obvious next question is how a simple meal could pose an ethical challenge to an entire profession. If you don’t know the answer perhaps it’s because you haven’t been on enough blind dates. Most people feel a sense of obligation to the provider of the gift, whether they realize it or not. They may well say otherwise, but drug reps host these dinners for the same reason guys buy dinner: it works.

Vets, new to these tactics though we might be, are no different from Senators on the golfing trip to Hawaii sponsored by People for Ethical Trees (imagine a logging industry lobbyist group). It’s just that the stakes (and the price of the gifts) are higher in the Senate.

When we get back to the office in the morning and give our staff the nice pens and mousepads the drug reps dished out the night before, are we more likely to sell even one more box of Revolution or count out ten more tablets of Simplicef because Pfizer paid for a nice dinner then proceeded to get drunk with us and gave us all the industry gossip in the process? Just maybe…

Because this is how it works: The vet ultimately sells the product. So far, no amount of advertising to the public has made a bit of difference. If a vet doesn’t carry Rimadyl or if she recommends Metacam instead, Pfizer’s product won’t end up in the pet owner’s hands.

I don’t mean to harp on Pfizer—I actually like their products better than most (and they are not sponsoring tonight’s festivities, by the way). But dinner is a prelude to euphemisms in almost every culture. And vets are as susceptible to overtures as anyone else; our reputation and education will only protect us so much.

Then again, as busy as we are at work, how would any vet find the time to learn about the new products on the horizon if not for our friendly neighborhood drug rep dinners? The worrisome part is that means those without deep pockets can’t play for our attention. After all, I’m not about to spend my Tuesday night with a small-time upstart if 1) he’s less likely to show me something I want to buy because he doesn’t have a fraction of the big guys’ R&D dollars and 2) he can only afford to take me to Burger King.

I guess it’s no more an ethical dilemma than marrying for money, but most everyone does…to some extent. At the very least, it’s a consideration. And even the most unattractive date looks one heck of a lot better basking in the dim glow of Ruth’s Chris’s candlelight than he would sitting under BK’s fluorescents.

Now tell me if I shouldn’t fear for my soul…along with my profession’s.