Eight current and former pharmaceutical company employees were acquitted Wednesday of charges they offered kickbacks to doctors in the form of consulting fees, dinners, golf trips and other favors to get them to prescribe certain drugs.

The case against the TAP Pharmaceutical Products employees had been closely watched by the drug industry and the medical profession, which have been criticized in recent years for giving and receiving freebies. Critics say the practice drives up the already high costs of prescription drugs and erodes public confidence that doctors are prescribing the right medications.

The federal jury deliberated for parts of four days following a three-month trial.

Several of the defendants cheered as the verdicts were read, prompting a reprimand from the judge. Their family members kissed, hugged and cried.

"I feel vindicated," defendant Donald Patton said. "I can stop living life looking through the rearview mirror. I'm going to get my career back on track."

Prosecutors argued that the TAP employees lavished golf and ski trips, free dinners and other incentives on doctors, along with free drug samples, in exchange for the physicians' agreement to prescribe TAP's prostate cancer drug Lupron and the heartburn medicine Prevacid.

The government also charged that current and former executives and sales managers at Lake Forest, Ill.-based TAP conspired to defraud Medicare and Medicaid by urging doctors to bill the government for the free drug samples.

The defense contended that it is standard practice and not illegal to offer freebies and that the doctors were not obligated in return to prescribe TAP's drugs. The defense also said the employees never encouraged doctors to bill Medicare and Medicaid for the free samples.

The jury acquitted the TAP employees on those charges, as well.

TAP itself was not on trial. The government settled with the company in 2001 for $875 million.

The government's star witness was Doug Durand, TAP's former vice president of sales, who filed a whistle-blower lawsuit in 1996 alleging that some members of the company's sales force were offering kickbacks to doctors.