Cristina Janney: Drug marketing is dangerous script for consumers

Cristina Janney

The last time I was in the doctor’s office, I noticed the cream and sugar bins at the coffee pot were branded with a popular drug name.

It reminded me of how ubiquitous drug marketing and big drug companies’ influence on our society has become. We trust our physicians to treat us to the best of their abilities and only prescribe us medications that are proven safe and effective.

A mega lawsuit settled Monday in federal court indicates aggressive drug marketing may be inferring. GlaxoSmithKline LLC will pay $3 billion in civil and criminal fines after pleading guilty for promoting two drugs for unapproved uses and failing to report safety information on another. This the largest such settlement in U.S. history.

According to The Associated Press, marketing included providing doctors with expensive resort vacations, European hunting trips, high-paid speaking tours and even tickets to a Madonna concert.

According to the case, GlaxoSmithKline illegally promoted the drug Paxil for treating depression in children from April 1998 to August 2003. The corporation also promoted the drug Wellbutrin from January 1999 to December 2003 for weight loss, the treatment of sexual dysfunction, substance addictions and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The drug was only approved for treatment of major depressive disorder.

Between 2001 and 2007, GlaxoSmithKline failed to report to the FDA on safety data for the diabetes drug Avandia. Since 2007, the FDA has added warnings to the Avandia label to alert doctors about potential increased risk of congestive heart failure and heart attack, according to The Associated Press.

The drug corporation also agreed to resolve civil liability for promoting the drugs Paxil, Wellbutrin, Advair, Lamictal and Zofran for off-label, non-covered uses.

It is clear that the drug company and some doctors eyes’ were not on the well-being of their patients and rather the all-mighty dollar. The drive for profit in this country has become so intense that large corporations and even doctors are willing to put people’s health at risk for a few extra bucks or a trip to Hawaii.

Drug companies have powerful lobbies with deep pockets. This was evidenced when big-drug money convinced Congress to allow them to start advertising prescription drugs to consumers, who can’t legally obtain them without a doctor’s signature.

Even with this record settlement, average consumers are left to wonder if it will affect the culture of abuse in the drug industry. Although $3 billion is more money than the average American consumer will see in 1,000 lifetimes, we must consider that GlaxoSmithKline and other mega drug companies are making billions of dollars on these popular drugs.

Although this settlement may be a hit to GlaxoSmithKline’s pocketbook, we are left to wonder if this will really deter other drug makers from doing the same despite sharp warnings from the Justice Department it will aggressively pursue health-care fraud.

Even if some of the top managers at GlaxoSmithKline fall because of the settlement, they likely will take golden parachutes with them, and there will be others to take their place.

What about the physicians that accepted the “bribes” to prescribe off-label medications? Most importantly, what happens to the droves of average consumers who were prescribed the off-line drugs or not fully informed about drug risks? They are not going to see any of that $3 billion in their pocket. Where is their justice?

These are but a few things to consider the next time you are at the doctor’s office and the doctor writes out a prescription for you with a prescription-branded pen.

Cristina Janney is the managing editor of The McPherson (Kan.) Sentinel. She can be reached at