Commentary

Reports: Media Doc Pinsky In Bed With Glaxo

It just happens to be one of life’s delightful serendipities, Dr. Drew Pinsky would have us believe. Yes, he got money from Glaxo Wellcome back in the day that he was saying that Wellbutrin "may enhance or at least not suppress sexual arousal” as much as other antidepressants but the observation was based on what he heard with his own two ears and had nothing to do with the 275Gs deposited in his bank account on behalf of what is now GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).

"In the late ’90s I was hired to participate in a two-year initiative discussing intimacy and depression which was funded by an educational grant by Glaxo Wellcome," according to a Pinsky statement emailed to various media outlets. "Services for the non-branded campaign included town hall meetings, writings and multimedia activities in conjunction with the patient advocacy group the National Depressive and Manic Depressive Association (NDMDA). My comments were consistent with my clinical experience."

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A nonbranded campaign? What could be more innocuous? It’s like much ado about nothing, right?

At the time of the endorsement, Pinsky, was simply a co-host of the nationally syndicated radio show “Loveline,” which he first appeared on as a fourth-year medical student at the University of Southern California in 1984. He presumably was not yet “the most listened-to doctor in America” based on television shows such as “Lifechangers” (“A fight erupts when one twin accuses her sister of drinking a third of her bottle of vodka…in minutes) and “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew.” 

The relationship between Pinsky and Glaxo, reported on by Jeanne Whalen in the Wall Street Journal this morning and online Tuesday evening, is revealed in an attachment to the complaint U.S. attorneys filed in October 2011 in federal court in the District of Massachusetts. They came to light when the Justice Department announced its $3 billion criminal and civil settlement with GSK “over illegal drug marketing and other matters” earlier this week.

“Pinsky is only one physician mentioned in the U.S. government's complaint,” Whalen writes. “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.”

That physician, James Pradko, tells Whalen that the government complaint takes his remarks “very much out of context” and that lectures he gave to other doctors and Glaxo sales reps "weren't meant to sell drugs, ever."

As for Pinsky, he seems to have gone a bit further than merely suggest that Wellbutrin (a.k.a. bupropion) didn’t interfere with a woman’s libido, if a Gawker report by Louis Peitzman about one radio segment is any indication.

It “began with a call from a woman who claimed to have had 60 orgasms in a row. Dr. Drew seemed to attribute her unbelievable pleasurefest to Wellbutrin, or bupropion,” Peitzman writes.

“….What I think she was amazed about was it just suddenly started and that kind of thing most typically happens from medication, frankly,” Pinsky is said to have said before explaining that “[bupropion] actually is the one we advocate, one of the things we suggest people do if they're getting a decrease in their libido or decrease in their arousal which typically occurs in the serotonin re-uptake inhibitor (SSRI) medication.” 

Bupropion, unlike some other popular anti-depressants, is not an SSRI.

Some of the information about GlaxoSmithKline’s promotion of Wellbutrin as libido-friendly has been previously reported, although it did not have the headline-catching attraction of Pinsky’s name attached to it.

[Public relations firm] “Cooney/Waters, at the behest of GSK, promoted the drug off-label for sexual dysfunction and weight loss in patients with depressive symptoms, but not depression itself,” InPharm’s Ben Adams reported in April. “The Court’s papers highlight one particular full-page spread by The Sun newspaper in 2000, which described Wellbutrin as ‘The pill doctors say will help you to slim’ -- even though it was not licensed for weight loss.” 

GSK called this particular media outreach “Operation Hustle” and, writes Adams, it “certainly worked for the firm. In 2001, a year after it started the media push, GSK noted that Wellbutrin’s ‘use for treatment of antidepressant-induced sexual dysfunction has increased due to product positioning.’ Sales increased 34% from 2000 to 2001, far in excess of the market rate growth for antidepressants.

It has become a de rigueur observation in any story about off-labeling marketing by Big Pharma to quote someone as saying, “it’s the cost of doing business.” This was no exception.

“So a $3 billion settlement for half a dozen drugs over 10 years can be rationalized as the cost of doing business,” Patrick Burns, a spokesman for the whistle-blower advocacy group Taxpayers Against Fraud, told the New York Times’ Katie Thomas and Michael S. Schmidt when settlement was announced. 

As for GSK, it strongly maintains that was then.

“We continually evolve and improve our business practices to align to the expectations of society and government and to our values of transparency, integrity, respect and focus on the patient…,” it responded to coverage of the story by ForbesMatthew Herper. 

Transparency and integrity. Somebody must be working on a pill for that, right?

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