A story in Mother Jones magazine details some of the tactics that pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline used to illegally market some of its medications.
Those tactics included a company-sponsored yacht trip, and payments made to celebrity physician Dr. Drew Pinsky in exchange for marketing off-label uses of anti-depressant Wellbutrin. GlaxoSmithKline also sponsored events at resorts in Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and California, at which physicians were offered recreational activities including deep-sea fishing, kayaking, snorkeling, sailing, horseback riding and balloon rides.
As part of the largest settlement ever leveled against a pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline recently agreed to pay $3 billion in fines for fraudulently promoting medications for unapproved uses.
The settlement doesn’t end the company’s legal troubles. Widespread lawsuits allege that GlaxoSmithKline and other manufacturers of antidepressants classified as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors failed to adequately warn pregnant patients of studies linking the drugs to potentially dangerous heart and lung defects in newborns.
Other SSRI antidepressants include Prozac and Zoloft.
The charges that prompted the $3 billion settlement include allegations that GlaxoSmithKline paid kickbacks to physicians who prescribed the company’s medications.
Using court documents from the case, Mother Jones spotlighted some particularly flagrant and egregious examples of the company’s attempts to pay off doctors.
In 2000, the company bought a set of tickets to Celtics and Bruins games at about $350 per seat for certain high-prescribing physicians. Other gifts for doctors included Crosby, Stills, and Nash tickets, NASCAR races, Knicks games, tennis lessons, and pheasant hunting.
Also that year, the GlaxoSmithKline held a cruise on a Brooklyn yacht as part of its speaker program to support anti-depressant Wellbutrin. The program invited specially targeted physicians and presented them with speakers touting “off-label” uses. “Off label” refers to uses for medications that aren’t specifically approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Though doctors are allowed to prescribe drugs for off-label uses, companies are legally prohibited from marketing them for those purposes.
Doctors, some of whom were paid more than $1.5 million between 2000 and 2003 by GlaxoSmithKline, often talked up the benefits of Wellbutrin to include easing the symptoms of ADD and ADHD, among other disorders.
On the yacht, a child psychiatrist gave a presentation on the “effectiveness” of Wellbutrin. The FDA has only approved Wellbutrin for adults over the age of 18. In 2004, the FDA also required that a warning about increased risk of suicide and suicidal thoughts in children and adolescents be included on the drug.
In 2001, Greg Thorpe, a sales rep who had been working with GlaxoSmithKline for more than 23 years, emailed higher ups with a complaint about these kinds of off-label promotions, writing:
“We have been told that ‘public perception’ is everything now. Well just imagine the call I received ten minutes ago from a physicians assistant, not a physician, ordering a 1) 65 minute deep tissue massage 2) a 60 minute Colorado cleansing facial 3) a 30 minute foot reflexology and 4) a pedicure and a French manicure. This would be after her ‘lunch at the Broadmoor’ and 30 minute lecture by Brendan Montano, MD who flew in from Connecticut for several thousand dollars to talk about weight loss and the benefits of Wellbutrin SR!!!! I want to promote the benefits of my products, but this even sickens me.”
Patients should consult their doctors before making any changes in their medication. A consultation with an SSRI lawyer is also important if there are significant injuries from SSRIs.
See the story here: