For more than a quarter-century, Dr. Drew Pinsky has been a seemingly tireless talker, an interpreter of maladies for audiences on radio, television and the Internet.
The ubiquitous physician with the California-cool vibe, the trim physique and the hipster eyewear has been a television doctor to rehabbing celebs and, in the process, has become a celeb himself.
And now, with the Dr. Drew brand firmly embedded in the national consciousness — at a moment when he regularly spins out best-selling books and hosts or co-hosts not just one, but three shows — Pinsky is becoming a clinical specimen for that most basic of capitalist afflictions: subtle hucksterism. Buried in a gargantuan Justice Department settlement announced this week with the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline are details of a sweet deal Pinsky cut to promote the depression drug Wellbutrin, also known by the name Bupropion.
Pinsky isn’t charged in the Glaxo case, which resulted in a corporate guilty plea and a record $3 billion settlement for fraudulently hawking unapproved uses of the diabetes drug Avandia and the depression medicines Wellbutrin and Paxil. But his entanglement in the case illustrates the ethically murky knitting of physicians (and their bank accounts) with drug companies, a fraught relationship that reformers have sought to address by adding sunshine provisions to the Obama administration’s health-care law, which recently survived mostly intact after a Supreme Court challenge.
A federal court complaint can be nettlesome even for those who are not charged, and in the Glaxo case, the probe has cast a kind of cloud over Pinsky’s credibility. It all tracks back to the late 1990s. In those days, Wellbutrin was being furtively promoted as a drug that could not only treat depression but also enhance a patient’s sex life and help with weight loss. The company’s sales representatives sometimes referred to Wellbutrin as the “happy, horny, skinny pill,” according to the Justice Department. In March and April 1999, according to receipts unearthed by federal investigators, Pinsky was paid a total of $275,000 by Glaxo Wellcome, the GlaxoSmithKline precursor that manufactured Wellbutrin.
The next month, he went on a national radio program, “David Essel — Alive!” A high-fiving public relations memo memorializes how Pinsky delivered for his corporate clients. Pinsky “communicated key campaign messages” on the show, the memo reads, chief among them the notion that Wellbutrin “is recommended for people experiencing a loss of libido.” The memo, though, is nothing compared with the transcript of the radio program that the feds included in the voluminous court record.
The program’s highlight is a claim by a 34-year-old woman who says she had 60 orgasms in a single night. The show’s host asks Pinsky: “What type of a medication would increase someone’s orgasmic potential, where they go from three or four to 60?” Pinsky responds that lots of antidepressants could do the trick, but the one he advocates is Bupropion or Wellbutrin because it “may enhance or at least not suppress sexual arousal” as much as other antidepressants. The transcript does not include any references to Pinsky’s deal with the drugmaker. The problem with making a claim about the drug’s supposed ability to juice a patient’s sexual performance is that Wellbutrin was approved for use in treating depression, not as a sexual enhancement.
Pinsky, an Olympic-level self-promoter who seems to have never met a microphone that he didn’t like, doesn’t appear eager to talk about the case or the questions it might raise about his current practices. His public relations representative, Valerie Allen, responded to multiple interview requests by sending a three-sentence statement from Pinsky.
“In the late 90s I was hired to participate in a 2 year initiative discussing intimacy and depression which was funded by an educational grant by Glaxo Wellcome,” the statement reads. “My comments were consistent with my clinical experience.”
Allen also sent a link to a Web site about Pinsky’s involvement with an intimacy and depression awareness campaign of the National Depressive and Manic-Depressive Association and the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy that was supported by by Glaxo Wellcome.
Pinsky’s representative did not respond to a question about whether Pinsky currently has financial deals with drug companies or advocacy groups. But a source at HLN, the channel that airs Pinsky’s “Dr. Drew” program, said he recently had a deal to promote the use of Nicorette, which is distributed by GlaxoSmithKline, for patients who are trying to quit smoking and with Janssen Pharmaceuticals to do public service announcements warning about the dangers of abusing prescription medicines. Neither of those deals is currently in place, although some of the public service announcements continue to air, said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person is not authorized to publicly about private business dealings. Pinsky also has a promotional deal with Nivea hand cream, the source said.
A Janssen representative could not be reached for comment. A GlaxoSmithKline spokeswoman confirmed that Pinsky was paid to promote the launch of the over-the-counter Nicorette Mini Lozenge smoking-cessation program from April 2010 to January and that his relationship with the manufacturer was disclosed in campaign materials and interviews.
Pinsky also received more than $74,000 from drugmaker Johnson & Johnson, according to a database compiled by ProPublica.
“HLN reviews Dr. Drew’s outside business relationships and requires any relevant disclosures be made to our viewers,” an HLN representative said in an e-mail. Spokesmen for Courtside Entertainment Group, which produces Pinsky’s “Loveline” radio program, and Warner Bros., which produces Pinsky’s “Lifechangers” TV program, did not respond to written questions.
Disclosure is essential in the opinion of many national health-care reform advocates. The Affordable Care Act — also known as Obamacare — includes a provision that requires pharmaceutical companies to disclose their payments to physicians.
“You deserve to know who [doctors are] working for,” said John Santa, head of the Consumer Reports Health Rating Center. “You think they’re working for you. But they might not tell you all the side effects, all the risks. They might not tell you the benefits of other drugs.”
The importance of disclosure extends beyond the examining room and into the television studio, said Marcia Angell, a Harvard Medical School lecturer who was the first woman to serve as editor of the New England Journal of Medicine. In fact, she said, the failure of a television doctor to disclose his financial ties might be even more troublesome than the failure of a local doctor.
“If anything,” she said, “that would be worse, because they influence more people.”
Brian Vastag contributed to this report.