Back in 1999 as Dr. Drew Pinsky’s celebrity career was on the rise, he found a way to make over a cool quarter million dollars from drug giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). All he had to do was talk about the unwanted sexual side effects of many antidepressant medications.
You see, the popular antidepressants back then were Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft. And all three had this unfortunate but common side effect — many people who took them lost virtually all interest in sex.
The problem isn’t that Dr. Drew talked about these concerns. The problem is that Dr. Drew talked about them on behalf of GSK without disclosing he got paid to do so.
Dr. Drew was hired by one of GSK’s marketing firms to talk on his popular radio show, Loveline, about the benefits of Wellbutrin (GSK is the maker of Wellbutrin). He told his radio listeners then that he prescribes it (and other medications) to depressed patients because it “may enhance or at least not suppress sexual arousal” as much as other antidepressants do:
Asked about the radio program and the payments, Dr. Pinsky said in an emailed statement Tuesday: “In the late ’90s I was hired to participate in a two-year initiative discussing intimacy and depression which was funded by an educational grant by Glaxo Wellcome,” one of the companies that later merged to form GlaxoSmithKline.
He added that the campaign “included town hall meetings, writings and multimedia activities in conjunction with [a] patient advocacy group.” He added, “My comments were consistent with my clinical experience.”
Again, nothing wrong with that. And nothing wrong with participating in this educational campaign, which included a now-defunct website. In fact, this is how many non-profit advocacy organizations made most of their of their money a decade ago — from “educational” grants from pharmaceutical companies.2
The problem arises in that Dr. Drew never told his listeners at the time — or the folks at the town hall meetings — that he was being paid to say those things by a pharmaceutical company that happens to make one of the drugs he was promoting.
He’s had 13 years to mention this lapse in professional judgment, to write an article about his role in helping promote the use of certain antidepressants over others. He didn’t until Tuesday.
What changed on Tuesday?
Well, nothing. But the day before, the government settled a case with GlaxoSmithKline that included a $3 billion settlement. And that settlement happened to disclose documents that showed Dr. Drew — among many other doctors — took GSK money left and right to help promote whatever the company needed promoting.
Another doctor, James Pradko, received over $2 million for talking up the benefits of Wellbutrin on behalf of GSK, and “frequently made “off-label claims” about Wellbutrin’s effectiveness against a number of conditions for which it isn’t FDA-approved, including weight loss, chronic fatigue syndrome, erectile dysfunction and chemical dependencies.”
But don’t worry. GSK reassures us all that this is the “old GSK.” The new GSk would never engage in such behavior:
“The complaint to which you refer concerns events in 1999, 13 years ago. It does not reflect what would be allowed in GSK today.” It added: “The government has made many allegations and legal conclusions concerning Wellbutrin that GSK disputes.
GSK admits, however, that during the period from January 1999 to December 2003, there were some occasions on which certain GSK sales representatives, speakers, and consultants promoted its antidepressant Wellbutrin to physicians for uses which were not FDA-approved in violation of federal law.”
Many people look up to and respect Dr. Drew for his efforts to help other celebrities now recover from drug and other addictions in “Celebrity Rehab,” and his work helping many ordinary folks with the other programs he’s involved in. A board-certified doctor of his caliber should’ve known better.3
It’s an unfortunate lapse of judgment, in my opinion, that he engaged in these promotions in the past and wasn’t transparent that he was being paid to do so.
Read the full story: Dr. Drew Received Glaxo Payments
(It’s also interesting to note that two days after this story broke by the WSJ, CNN, one of Dr. Drew’s employers, has failed to file a story on its own website — while virtually every other large media organization has.)
- These side effects remain today and are one of the most common reasons for people discontinuing antidepressants. [↩]
- I’ll save how “unrestricted” these grants really were for another essay, suffice to say that if you didn’t write the materials in a way the pharmaceutical company wanted, you were certainly unlikely to get future grants. [↩]
- I mean, c’mon… even I know better, and I’m a nobody next to Dr. Drew! [↩]