Sept. 2, 2009
Statement of Sidney Wolfe, M.D., Director, Public Citizen’s Health Research Group
Today’s $2.3 billion settlement between Pfizer and the U.S. Justice Department for unlawful prescription drug promotion may sound large, but it’s not enough to ensure drug companies will curb their bad behavior. In fact, it just shows there is competition in the pharmaceutical industry. Pfizer has broken a record just set by Eli Lilly & Company in January for what was then described by the Justice Department as the “largest individual corporate criminal fine” in U.S. history (more than $500 million in criminal penalties for off-label promotion of Zyprexa). Now, a scant seven months later, Pfizer has broken this record with a criminal fine of $1.2 billion, the largest criminal fine ever imposed in the U.S. for any matter. (The rest of the $2.3 billion represents civil penalties.)
The U.S. pharmaceutical industry, long one of the most profitable in the country, with profits last year of close to $50 billion, has engaged in an unprecedented amount of criminal activity in the past decade, all aimed at increasing sales, often by illegally promoting drugs for diseases for which evidence that benefits outweigh harm is lacking (also known as illegal off-label promotion). When doctors are induced, either by being bribed or misled by drug companies, to prescribe drugs for such purposes, there is a reasonable chance that the drugs will do more harm than good and patients may be seriously injured or killed by such promotion.
In addition to Pfizer and Eli Lilly (Pfizer also pleaded guilty to criminal charges for off-label promotion of Neurontin in 2004), other drug companies found to have engaged in criminal activity in the past 10 years include Abbott, Schering-Plough, Astra-Zeneca, Purdue and Bayer.
Unfortunately, the ever-escalating fines are unlikely to stop drug companies from continuing to bribe doctors because they represent just a fraction of drug company profits and no one has gone to jail.
There is no doubt that the pharmaceutical industry has made major contributions to the health of the public, but it must also be considered part of well-organized crime in this country. It is not surprising that the American public understands this; in a Harris Poll last fall, only 10 percent of respondents thought that the pharmaceutical industry was “generally honest and trustworthy - so that you normally believe a statement by a company in that industry.”
Until corporate titans are forced to fork over a much larger proportion of their illegally gotten profits and are put behind bars, nothing will change.
More from Doctor Sidney Wolfe in a 2002 interview with PBS Frontline
Among the most outspoken and vigilant critics of the FDA and the pharmaceutical industry, Sidney Wolfe has been the director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group -- an independent, nonprofit consumer-advocacy organization -- since it was founded in 1971. He is also an adjunct professor of internal medicine at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. "Within the FDA," he tells FRONTLINE in this interview, "there's a very dangerous, unhealthy tension that results in drugs being approved that shouldn't be approved, and drugs staying on the market much longer than they should." He goes on to discuss the reforms that he thinks are needed. This interview was conducted on Nov. 4, 2002. Read the whole interview Here