In documents disclosed this week as part of a $3-billion settlement between the U.S. Department of Justice and GlaxoSmithKline, justice officials cited a number of doctors in a complaint for accepting large payments from the company and improperly promoting its products. The payments, made by a communications firm working for GlaxoSmithKline, are revealed in an attachment to a complaint the U.S. government filed in October 2011 in federal court in the District of Massachusetts.
The government alleged that radio personality Drew Pinsky received two payments in March and April 1999 from the company to promote the antidepressant Wellbutrin (bupropion) “in settings where it did not appear that Dr. Pinsky was speaking for GlaxoSmithKline.” In one radio appearance at the time, Pinsky described antidepressants as a “cornerstone” of treatment, and promoted a website for information about town-hall meetings being organised for depression experts, but which today re-directs to a Wellbutrin site established by GlaxoSmithKline. Web registry records indicate that the site in question, which made no reference to the drug’s name in its address, was also established by the company in 1999.
Commenting on the allegations, Pinsky explained that he had been “hired to participate in a two-year initiative discussing intimacy and depression, which was funded by an educational grant by Glaxo Wellcome,” adding that the campaign “included town hall meetings, writings and multimedia activities in conjunction with [a] patient advocacy group.” Pinsky stated that “my comments were consistent with my clinical experience.”
Another doctor, James Pradko, allegedly received $2 million from GlaxoSmithKline between 2001 and 2003. The complaint claims Pradko gave hundreds of talks to doctors and company sales representatives about depression and frequently made “off-label claims” about Wellbutrin’s effectiveness, including for weight loss, chronic fatigue syndrome, erectile dysfunction, and chemical dependencies. Pradko argues that the complaint takes his speeches “very much out of context,” and that his talks “weren’t meant to sell drugs, ever.”
GlaxoSmithKline declined to comment on its financial relationship with Pinsky or other physicians, adding that the complaint “does not reflect what would be allowed in GlaxoSmithKline today.” The company further states that “the government has made many allegations and legal conclusions concerning Wellbutrin that [the company] disputes.” However, the drugmaker acknowledged that “during the period from January 1999 to December 2003, there were some occasions on which certain GlaxoSmithKline sales representatives, speakers, and consultants promoted its antidepressant Wellbutrin to physicians for uses, which were not FDA-approved in violation of federal law.”
The U.S. government complaint against GlaxoSmithKline followed a nine-year investigation of the company’s marketing practices, and led to the criminal and civil settlement announced this week. As part of the deal, GlaxoSmithKline is pleading guilty to criminal charges related to illegal drug marketing and failing to report certain drug-safety data to U.S. regulators.