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When drug makers' profits outweigh penalties

"The great majority of doctors have no idea; they don't even understand the distinction between on- and off-labeling," he says.

Pfizer's marketing program offered doctors up to $1,000 a day to allow a Pfizer salesperson to spend time with the physician and his patients, according to a whistle-blower lawsuit filed by John Kopchinski, who worked as a salesman at Pfizer from 1992 to 2003.

"By 'pairing up' with a physician, the sales representative was able to promote over a period of many hours, without the usual problems of gaining access to prescribing physicians," Kopchinski says. "In essence, this amounted to Pfizer buying access to physicians."

Pfizer spokesman Chris Loder says the company stopped what it calls "mentorships" in 2005. He says Pfizer paid doctors $250 a visit. The goal was clear: Get doctors to prescribe a new drug as widely as possible.

Pfizer's Neurontin is a case in point. The FDA approved the drug as a supplemental medication to treat epilepsy in 1993. Pfizer took in $2.27 billion from sales of Neurontin in 2002. A full 94 percent -- $2.12 billion -- of that revenue came from off-label use, according to the prosecutors' 2004 Pfizer sentencing memo.

Since 2004, companies that are now Pfizer divisions have pleaded guilty to off-label marketing of two drugs. Pfizer continued off-label promotions for these medications after buying the firms, according to documents.

Pfizer first stepped into an off-label scheme in 1999, when it offered to buy Warner-Lambert, based in New Jersey. Prosecutors charged that Warner-Lambert marketed Neurontin off-label between 1995 and 1999.

Warner-Lambert admitted doing so for one year in a May 2004 guilty plea for which Pfizer paid $430 million in fines and penalties.

When the FDA approved Neurontin in 1993 to be used only along with other epilepsy drugs, the agency wrote that as a side effect, the drug can induce depression and suicidal thoughts in patients.

The whistle-blower

Much of what prosecutors learned about Warner-Lambert's marketing of Neurontin comes from a former employee, David Franklin, who holds a Ph.D. in microbiology.

Franklin, 48, whose title at Warner-Lambert was medical liaison, says his job involved more salesmanship than science. He told doctors that Neurontin was the best drug for a dozen off-label uses, including pain relief, bipolar disease and depression.

"Technically, I had responsibility for answering physician questions about all of Parke-Davis's drugs," Franklin says. "In practice, my real job was to promote Neurontin for off-label indications heavily -- to the exclusion of just about everything else."


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