Drug Companies Still Make Bundle Even When They Admit They Lie

If you don't understand why I'm so committed to tearing down the established conventional medical paradigm and exposing the blatant disregard the mega-billion drug companies have for you, the lead story in this morning's USA Today ought to convince you.

The feature describes what happened when Warner-Lambert, once independent but now a division of Pfizer, pleaded guilty to illegally marketing Neurontin to treat ailments for which it was not approved to do. The company paid a $430 million fine and, in addition, Pfizer agreed to tighter rules to ensure compliance with drug-marketing laws. It will also contribute millions of dollars to states to educate doctors about Neurontin.

However, Pfizer got off cheap because the fine didn't include any prosecution of Warner-Lambert executives. Conversely, Nerontin sales are on a pace to surpass last year's $2.7 billion.

Wow!

Warner-Lambert's was punished for marketing Neurontin to doctors for reasons ther than as a supplemental anti-seizure medication for epileptics. That was the only use approved by the FDA during Neurontin's early years, when prosecutors say Warner-Lambert's illegal marketing took place.

Doctors can prescribe FDA-approved drugs for off-label uses. But federal law forbids pharmaceutical companies to market drugs for treatments not FDA-approved. The Justice Department says that's what Warner-Lambert did from shortly after introducing Neurontin in 1994 until 2000. Prosecutors alleged that Warner-Lambert:

  • Lied to doctors about the drug's effectiveness
  • Paid doctors to allow a sales representative to sit in on sessions with patients
  • Paid doctors, some up to $250,000, to unethically talk up Neurontin to other doctors

In fact, the list of ailments that Warner-Lambert claimed Neurontin alleviated was so long - covering pain, headaches, bipolar disorder, attention deficit disorder, alcohol detoxification - that some Warner-Lambert employees dubbed it the "snake oil" list, government documents say.

The strategy worked. In 2002, 94 percent of Neurontin's sales were for off-label uses, up from40 percent in 1995, the government estimates, citing company documents and independent market research. Wall Street firm Lehman Bros. estimates that 90 percent of Neurontin sales are currently off-label.

Doctors consider the drug relatively safe with few side effects. But prosecutors said Warner-Lambert's actions caused Medicaid to pay for prescriptions it should not have. They also said patients could have been harmed by taking a drug not proved safe and effective for their condition.

USA Today August 17, 2004

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