Sometimes legal settlements reveal more than just boring dollar amounts. Last week, GlaxoSmithKline agreed to plead guilty to the illegal marketing of the prescription antidepressant Wellbutrin and pay $3 billion in criminal and civil fines. This settlement followed a 9-year investigation into the company’s marketing practices by the federal government. In the process, documents associated with the case revealed that TV physician Dr. Drew was among the “consultants” paid to do this illegal advertising. So what did Glaxo do, and why was it so bad? And why would a trusted name in science forsake his neutral and beneficial advice in the name of a pharmaceutical company’s profits (hint: it has to do with money)? Find out after the break.
A unique selling point of the drug was that, in contrast with other antidepressants and especially of the same type (SSRI), Wellbutrin did not negatively affect a patient’s libido. Wellbutrin decided to advertise this fact as the sole reason to get Wellbutrin — not because you’re depressed, but because you want more excitement in the bedroom. Unfortunately, a pharmaceutical company cannot advertise a drug for a use that the FDA does not approve it to treat. Wellbutrin was approved as an antidepressant, not a libido enhancer, so Glaxo could only market it as such. There’s good reason for this, too: Wellbutrin and other SSRIs can react negatively with non-depressed people, e.g., people who just want to get the blood pumping for the missus. So it was a big deal that they ignored this well-established law in order to hawk their chemicals to medically ignorant consumers.
Dr. Drew Pinsky, known as the friendly and wise Dr. Drew on TV, was hired by Glaxo Wellcome to participate in a two-year “educational grant” to discuss and promote Wellbutrin in the 90s. At the time, Dr. Drew was the co-host of a nationally broadcasted radio show called “Loveline.” He began work on this show as a 4th-year medical student, long before he became one of the most watched doctors in America on CNN and HLN. During Loveline and other appearances at town halls and stump speeches, Dr. Drew began schilling for Wellbutrin, claiming it was great for the libido as part of his “clinical experience”. Never once did he mention the $275,000 from Glaxo Wellcome filling his coffers. In fact, it’s safe to say Dr. Drew alone played a large part in bolstering Wellbutrin’s position in the competitive antidepressant market. Dr. Drew spoke specifically about the libido-enhancing side effect to his trusting audiences, sometimes exclusively. Thanks in part to Drew’s continued endorsement, sales of Wellbutrin increased by 34% between 2000 and 2001. GlaxoSmithKline now admits that it violated federal law by directing its sales representatives, speakers, and consultants to promote Wellbutrin to physicians for uses which were not approved by the FDA. Dr. Drew, hiding behind the phrase “consistent with my clinical experience”, is not actually implicated in this settlement. Only exposed.