How to have fun with drug money

PharmedOut spends Pfizer's cash to talk about Eli Lilly's problems.

By Andrew Leonard
Published January 25, 2007 5:43PM (EST)

Pfizer's announcement earlier this week that it would be forced to lay off 10,000 employees, in part due to the expiration of patent protection on Zoloft, could almost make a sensitive person feel sorry for the pharmaceutical giant. Maybe we've been too hard on Big Pharma. That's a lot of presumably decent people who might still be employed if only we'd given Pfizer another decade or two of intellectual property protection.

But then you watch a video making the online rounds of an interview with a former Eli Lilly drug rep, explaining how he marketed Zyprexa, a popular treatment for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. And your sympathy disappears faster than you can say "severe side effects." Several states are currently investigating Eli Lilly to determine whether the company downplayed knowledge that patients who used the drug frequently became obese or exhibited other serious problems, such as diabetes.

Shahram Ahari, who worked for Zyprexa from 1998-2000, makes a compelling witness: articulate and damning. My two favorite quotes from the five-minute video:

"Statistics are like prisoners, torture them long enough and they'll tell you whatever you want to hear."

"Decisions like these are simply a [result of a] cost-benefit analysis ... 'if we start talking about [the side effects] now, we might lose X amount of millions of dollars, whereas if we let it slide, it might never be really noticed, or we might get in trouble for it but it will cost Y amount of dollars. To [discuss the side effects] now would be financially more costly than dealing with the repercussions five years later."

Almost as interesting as the content of the video is its genesis. I learned about it via a link from Jason Shafrin's Healthcare Economist blog. Shafrin picked it up from a blog called Kevin M.D. Kevin got it from PharmedOut, a nonprofit organization that launched in early January dedicated to educating physicians about the pharmaceutical industry. (Judging by a tag line on the video, PharmedOut appears to have worked with Ridgeway/Ng, the new online reporting outfit started by former Village Voice journalist James Ridgeway, to produce the clip.)

Here's the best part: PharmedOut, run out of Georgetown University's Department of Physiology and Biophysics, is funded by something called "the Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education grant program," which was "created as part of a 2004 settlement between Warner-Lambert, a division of Pfizer, Inc., and the Attorneys General of 50 States and the District of Columbia, to settle allegations that Warner-Lambert conducted an unlawful marketing campaign for the drug Neurontin (gabapentin) that violated state consumer protection laws."

So, to recap: An unlawful marketing campaign by Pfizer is helping to pay for an educational outreach program that is spreading the word about a potentially unlawful campaign by Eli Lilly. There is a great beauty to this.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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