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Will Record Fine Set Pfizer Straight?

September 21, 2009

Making lifesaving drugs doesn't give a company license to fraudulently market its medicines.

That's why Pfizer had to pay a whopping $2.3 billion for pushing the painkiller Bextra and three other medications for unapproved uses and at doses that could be dangerous.

This is Pfizer's fourth such settlement since 2002. The company is tarnishing its own name.

In its defense, corporate officers point out that three of those four settlements were for actions taken by the companies Warner-Lambert and Pharmacia before their acquisition by Pfizer. Spokesmen say they aren't minimizing the seriousness of the behavior. "We accept the fine, regret it and look forward to ensuring compliance in the future," said Ray Kerins, vice president of communications.

Yet each time the company is found responsible for activities that are devoid of integrity, its corporate attorneys crank out the same two-part message: The company is committed to the highest form of ethics while making drugs that save lives. Yet its sales force isn't getting the message.

Pfizer earned the latest fine — the largest health care fraud settlement and largest criminal fine of any kind ever — because it instructed its sales force to tell doctors the drug Bextra could be used to treat acute pain at higher doses than approved. Bextra was approved only for treating menstrual cramps and arthritis, and higher doses risked damage to patients' heart, skin and kidneys. Bextra was withdrawn from the market in 2005.

In addition, Pfizer gave doctors all-expense vacations at resorts and paid them to listen to lectures on drugs, an all-too-common practice among pharmaceutical companies. Pfizer said that starting next year, it will post on its website any consulting or research fees it pays doctors. It's a good start.

Americans are ever more dependent on pharmaceuticals to treat illnesses. Doctors should refrain from accepting trips or cash that compromises their integrity regarding which drugs to recommend. Like Pfizer, the medical profession is not adequately policing itself, and patients are the losers.


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