Drug companies offer doctors free vacations, gifts and money to prescribe their medications - a practice that is driving up their cost, Congress was told Tuesday.

John Nelson, a Salt Lake obstetrician and gynecologist, was one who told that his colleagues had been offered free trips to the Caribbean and California to get them to prescribe a new drug."It was especially a problem for me when I realized that my patients are paying for these lavish incentives in the form of higher prices for their prescription medications," Nelson told the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.

Committee Chairman Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said, "Doctors who accept lavish industry gifts are jeopardizing their objectivity and the trust of their patients."

He said a committee study said the drug industry spends $5 billion a year promoting its products. Much is legitimate, but the "bribes" to doctors are one reason drug prices have risen faster than inflation.

Sidney M. Wolfe, director of the consumer activist Public Citizen Health Research Group, gave examples of what he said amounted to bribes.

He said Wyeth-Ayerst in 1986 offered doctors a free trip anywhere in the continental United States if they prescribed one of its drugs 50 times. Sandoz offered a doctor $100 to read its literature encouraging the use of a highly toxic immune-suppressing drug for treating psoriasis, a use that is not approved.

And he said one doctor was offered $1,200 by Roche Laboratories to participate in a "clinical study" using one of the company's expensive antibiotics. He merely had to prescribe the drug for 20 patients and record minimal data.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he is concerned about some of the questionable practices but defended the industry overall.

"You're using isolated examples to tar an entire industry," Hatch said. "Doctors are smarter than you indicate. They have an obligation to explain the benefits and risks" of drugs to patients. "I don't think any doctors would sell their patients down the drain for $100."

But blasting the industry even more was David C. Jones, a former public relations official for Ciba-Geigy Corp. and Abbott Laboratories.

"Drug companies have institutionalized deception," Jones said. "The price of prescription drugs is determined by what the market will bear. . .. Pain, suffering and desperation will support a high price."

UPI contributed to this story