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When drug makers' profits outweigh penalties

Franklin says he knew such uses of the drug had no scientific support for effectiveness and safety.

"I was actually undermining their ability to fulfill the Hippocratic oath," Franklin says, referring to a physician's pledge to "First, do no harm."

After working for Warner-Lambert for three months, Franklin quit and filed a whistle-blower lawsuit on behalf of taxpayers to recover money the government paid for illegally promoted drugs. He stood to collect as much as 30 percent of any settlement the company made with the government.

Franklin had to wait four years -- until 2000 -- before the Justice Department began a criminal investigation. In November 1999, Pfizer made its public offer to buy Warner-Lambert. In January 2000, a federal grand jury in Boston issued subpoenas to Warner-Lambert employees to testify about the marketing of Neurontin.

That March, Warner-Lambert's annual report disclosed that prosecutors were building a criminal case. Undeterred, Pfizer bought Warner-Lambert in June for $87 billion -- the third-largest merger in U.S. history.

More sales than Viagra

A year after the acquisition, the FDA discovered that Neurontin was still being marketed off-label. In a June, 2001 letter to the company, the agency wrote that Pfizer's promotion of the drug "is misleading and in violation of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act."

Pfizer marketed Neurontin off-label after receiving that letter, agency records show. For 2001, Pfizer reported revenue of $1.75 billion from Neurontin sales, making it the company's fourth-largest-selling drug that year, ahead of impotence pill Viagra, which Neurontin topped for four years.

As Neurontin sales soared to $2.27 billion in 2002, the FDA found that Pfizer was improperly claiming that the drug was useful for a broader range of brain disorders than scientific evidence had established.

The agency sent a letter dated July 1, 2002, that said the company's marketing practices were in violation of FDA rules. It asked Pfizer to stop using misleading promotions. Pfizer reported $2.7 billion in revenue from Neurontin in 2003. Overall, the drug has provided Pfizer with $12 billion in revenue.

Pfizer spokesman Chris Loder says, "Regarding the 2001 and 2002 FDA letters, we do not believe that they were suggestive of any continuing off-label promotion."

For blowing the whistle on his employer, Franklin collected $24.6 million under the False Claims Act.

Prosecutors Loucks and Sullivan got involved in the case after Franklin filed his suit, relying on information from Franklin and their own investigation. Before 2004, prosecutions for off-label marketing were rare.


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