After Pfizer became the world’s biggest drug company in 2000, Henry A. McKinnell, former Pfizer CEO, vowed to make Pfizer the “the world’s most valued company to patients, to customers, to business partners, to colleagues, and to communities where we work and live.”
“Pfizer is a black hole,” Peter Rost, M.D., author of “The Whistleblower: Confessions of a Healthcare Hit Man” and probably Pfizer’s most famous former employee, told AlterNet. “It is nothing but a maze of cobbled together drug companies that aggressively markets drugs it didn’t create in a military-like command structure.”
Still, Pfizer’s vast product line, its $50 billion-a-year revenues, and a reputation for having the best-trained sales reps make it the team to beat for competing salesmen and lead to Pfizer envy, as seen on Cafepharma.com, the drug industry chat room considered pharma’s washroom wall.
“Glad they did it,” wrote a poster about last year’s Department of Justice (DOJ) Bextra settlement: “Pfizer is only sticking it to the American person when they perpetrate a fraud of this magnitude. The rest of you who sat by and said nothing are no better than a bunch of crooks
“My father always said: ‘You lie, you cheat, you steal. You can’t do one without doing them all.’ You must be so proud. … I would take that name badge off when I walk into an office if I were you.”
“If you think that Pfizer is the only drug company that has dealt with off-label promotion issues you are sadly mistaken,” said the next poster.
Patients have sued Pfizer over Chantix, Lipitor, Celebrex, Bextra, Neurontin, Lyrica, Viagra, Zoloft, and other drugs. Pfizer downplayed Lipitor’s “serious and irreversible side effects,” says Mark Jay Krum, an attorney representing plaintiffs in a class-action suit. He says the company “is willing to promote the drug at any cost.”
“Illegal conduct was pervasive throughout the company and stemmed from messages created at high levels within the national marketing team,” DOJ wrote in the Bextra sentencing memo. “Employees, including district managers, explained that they did not question their supervisors about the illegal conduct that they were being instructed to carry out because to do so would be considered a ‘CLM’ or a ‘Career Limiting Move.’”
Still the FDA needs to take some blame for waving iffy Pfizer drugs through, especially under the 1992 Prescription Drug User Fee Act (PDUFA), in which drug companies “buy” accelerated approvals.
Why did the FDA allow Pfizer to make money for 10 years on the leukemia drug Mylotarg, which was given an accelerated approval, and allowed people to take it as guinea pigs for 10 years while “confirmatory” studies establishing its safety and efficacy were still outstanding?
Patients who took Mylotarg while on chemotherapy had more deaths than those just on chemotherapy—a clear example of the lethal metrics of rushed-through drugs.
Most pharma watchers agree that financial penalties, including last year’s $2.3 billion Bextra settlement, won’t upend Pfizer, whose one-year budget for research and development alone is in the billions. Yet DOJ repeatedly lets Pfizer pawn off guilty pleas to the False Claims Act (which include a ban on Medicare, Medicaid, and VA eligibility) on its shell companies and keep doing business with the government. Why?
“Pfizer is the largest drug company in the world and if you include its generics unit it makes literally hundreds of different drugs. Getting tough would mean no Lipitor, no Viagra, no Bacitracin, no Cipro, no Zithromax, no Sutent, et cetera,” says Jim Edwards, a pharmaceutical reporter on BNET and former managing editor of Adweek.
“The government is not really in a position to be cutting itself off from all that medicine,” he said
“So many Medicaid, Medicare, and VA drugs come from Pfizer, the government would never convict them [Pfizer],” agrees Peter Rost. “It would stop the drug flow.
Martha Rosenberg is a writer who lives in Chicago.
An earlier version of this report appeared on Alternet.org