Friday, July 13, 2012

Cruises, Pheasant Hunting Trips, and Political Donations: The 5 Skeeziest GlaxoSmithKline Perks Revealed

Four pharmaceutical executives stand with their backs to a darkened Las Vegas auditorium. Smoke machine fog billows at their heels while a platform slowly rotates them to face thousands in the audience. A song from the Space Jam soundtrack plays, stage lights brighten, and suddenly a giant model pill dispenser is revealed on stage. Cue sparklers.

Y’all ready for this?

This is not a parody of corporate conduct. It’s Exhibit 28A, a video (above) uploaded by the Department of Justice last week from court documents pertaining to the "largest health care fraud settlement in U.S. history." The scene itself is from the real and not-so-distant past, at GlaxoSmithKline's 2001 sales launch for its asthma medication Advair, which the company promoted as first-line therapy for mild asthma patients. The study that conclusion came from, however, had been flatly rejected by the FDA, and later received a black box warning as the result of deaths in halted clinical trials. The US complaint alleged that GSK continued to market the product as such anyway—as recently as 2010—while providing kickbacks for high-prescribing physicians to boot.

Last week, GlaxoSmithKline agreed to plead guilty to criminal charges and pay a total of $3 billion to resolve allegations pertaining to several other drugs, the illegal marketing of them, and the obscuring of clinical data from the FDA. "Today’s multibillion dollar settlement is unprecedented in both size and scope," Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole said in a press conference.

The investigation unearthed at least a decade's worth of physician kickbacks, fraudulent marketing, and various other kinds of legal (and ethical) boundaries breached, though this kind of behavior seems par for the course across the industry: Last year, Johnson & Johnson, pleading guilty to bribing foreign doctors, agreed to fork up $70 million in fines. As of April, Bristol-Myers Squibb has been subpoenaed by the SEC (likely for something similar), and Merck, Eli Lilly, GlaxoSmithKline, and AstraZeneca have said they are also cooperating with investigations, according to the New York Times.

Meanwhile, as Forbes highlighted, the market hasn't blinked—GSK's stock prices are dandy. Still, the evidence is up and available on the web for anyone to peruse: emails detailing how physicians are to be plied with basketball tickets, a flier for a GSK-sponsored yacht trip, payments made to Dr. Drew Pinsky (yes, the Dr. Drew) as he marketed off-label uses of anti-depressant Wellbutrin, and a physician assistant's request for a deep tissue massage. Deep-sea fishing, kayaking, snorkeling, sailing, horseback riding, and balloon rides were just a few of the recreational activities offered to physicians at "Paxil Forum" events held at resorts in Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and California in 2000 and 2001.

So, see for yourself: A compilation of some of the most gagworthy snippets from one of Big Pharma's biggest frauds.

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