Radio Host Received Glaxo Payments
By JEANNE WHALEN
In June 1999, popular radio personality Dr. Drew Pinsky used the airwaves to extol the virtues of GlaxoSmithKline GSK.LN -0.17% PLC's antidepressant Wellbutrin, telling listeners he prescribes it and other medications to depressed patients because it "may enhance or at least not suppress sexual arousal" as much as other antidepressants do.
But one thing listeners didn't know was that, two months before the program aired, Dr. Pinsky—who gained fame as "Dr. Drew" during years co-hosting a popular radio sex-advice show "Lovelines"—received the second of two payments from Glaxo totaling $275,000 for "services for Wellbutrin."
The payments, made by a communications firm working for Glaxo, 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 documents were disclosed this week as the U.S. Justice Department announced a $3 billion criminal and civil settlement with Glaxo over illegal drug marketing and other matters.
Dr. Pinsky and his publicist didn't respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
The U.S. government complaint followed a nine-year investigation of Glaxo's marketing practices, and led to the settlement announced this week. As part of the deal, Glaxo is pleading guilty to criminal charges related to illegal drug marketing and failing to report important drug-safety data to the Food and Drug Administration.
The $3 billion fine will also settle the government's civil claims against Glaxo, including allegations that the company plied doctors with cash and lavish trips to resorts to get them to promote Glaxo drugs for uses beyond those specified in the drugs' FDA-approved prescribing labels.
Doctors are allowed to prescribe drugs as they see fit, but it is illegal for companies to promote drugs for uses not approved by the FDA, a practice known as "off-label" marketing. Wellbutrin's prescribing label doesn't state that the drug is less inhibiting of sexual libido than other antidepressants.
In an email Tuesday, Glaxo declined to answer questions about its financial relationship with Dr. Pinsky or other physicians.
The company said: "The complaint to which you refer concerns events in 1999, 13 years ago. It does not reflect what would be allowed in GSK today." It added: "The government has made many allegations and legal conclusions concerning Wellbutrin that GSK disputes. GSK admits, however, that during the period from January 1999 to December 2003, there were some occasions on which certain GSK sales representatives, speakers, and consultants promoted its antidepressant Wellbutrin to physicians for uses which were not FDA-approved in violation of federal law."
Dr. Pinsky is only one physician mentioned in the U.S. government's complaint. It also accuses a number of other doctors of taking large payments from the drug maker and improperly plugging its drugs, including one doctor who received $2 million from Glaxo between 2001 and 2003.
The complaint says the physician, James Pradko, gave hundreds of talks to doctors and Glaxo sales reps about depression and frequently made "off-label claims" about Wellbutrin's effectiveness against a number of conditions for which it isn't FDA-approved, including weight loss, chronic fatigue syndrome, erectile dysfunction and chemical dependencies.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Dr. Pradko said the complaint takes his speeches "very much out of context." He said he only ever spoke about treating depressed patients, and that his talks "weren't meant to sell drugs, ever."
He added: "During my numerous lectures I tried to answer a common question which many doctors have: how does a doctor choose one specific antidepressant medication for a certain patient from the many excellent medications available? The vast majority of doctors attending my lectures stated that they felt I answered this question and did so in an unbiased and scientifically sound manner."
On his 1999 radio appearance, Dr. Pinsky spoke at length about depression's damaging effects on relationships and intimacy. He describes antidepressants as a "cornerstone" of treatment but also calls therapy crucial and notes that antidepressants can cause people to lose interest in sex.
He also gives a plug for a website, www.intimacyanddepression.com, where he says listeners can get information about town-hall meetings being organized for depression experts to talk to the public about the illness. That website today redirects to a Wellbutrin site—www.wellbutrinxl.com—established by GlaxoSmithKline. Web registry records show that Glaxo also established www.intimacyanddepression.com in 1999. A Glaxo spokesman declined to answer questions about www.intimacyanddepression.com or about the town-hall events Dr. Drew referred to.
In his radio appearance, Dr. Pinsky says he participated in some of the town-hall meetings in New York, San Francisco and Seattle but doesn't mention any connection to Glaxo.
"It was a very neat event. We go into big halls, three or four thousand people and you sit down with some really exceptional people who themselves are high power professionals in the field of the treatment of depression," Dr. Pinsky says.