The Case for Giving Eli Lilly the Corporate Death Penalty
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Eli Lilly & Company's rap sheet as a public menace is so long that for Lilly watchers to overcome the "banality-of-Lilly-sleaziness" phenomenon, the drug company must break some type of record measuring egregiousness. Lilly obliged earlier this year, receiving the largest criminal fine ever imposed on a corporation.
If Americans are ever going to revoke the publicly granted charters of reckless, giant corporations -- well within our rights -- we might want to get the ball rolling with Lilly, whose recent actions appalled even the mainstream media. And with Lilly's chums, the Bush family, out of power, now might be the right time.
On January 15, 2009, Lilly pled guilty to charges that it had illegally marketed its blockbuster drug Zyprexa for unapproved uses to children and the elderly, two populations especially vulnerable to its dangerous side effect. Lilly plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge and agreed to pay $1.42 billion, which included $615 million to end the criminal investigation and approximately $800 million to settle the civil case.
One of the eight whistle-blowers in this case, former Lilly sales representative Robert Rudolph, says the settlement will not completely change Lilly's business practices, and he wants jail time for executives. "You have to remember, with Zyprexa," said Rudolph, "people lost their lives."
Rudolph is not exaggerating. Zyprexa, marketed as an "atypical" antipsychotic drug, has been promoted as having less dangerous adverse effects than "typical" antipsychotic drugs such as Thorazine and Haldol. However, on February 25, 2009, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that the rate of sudden cardiac death in patients taking either typical or atypical antipsychotic drugs is double the death rate of a control group of patients not taking these drugs.
Zyprexa -- though not nearly as well known as Lilly's previous blockbuster Prozac -- is today one of the biggest-selling drugs in the world. Zyprexa has grossed more than $39 billion since its approval in 1996, with $4.8 billion of that in 2007 (and it was projected to equal or surpass that gross in 2008 when earnings are reported).
Lilly has had other Zyprexa scandals, but in this current one, Lilly executives matched Charles Dickens scoundrels. Zyprexa is approved by the Food and Drug and Administration (FDA) for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, but Lilly illegally marketed it for sleep difficulties, aggression, and other unapproved uses. Lilly sales reps aggressively pushed Zyprexa as a wonderful drug to chill out disruptive children and the elderly who were not schizophrenic or bipolar. The lawsuit against Lilly stated, "In truth, this was Lilly's thinly veiled marketing of Zyprexa as an effective chemical restraint for demanding, vulnerable and needy patients."
Doctors can prescribe drugs for unapproved uses (called "off-label prescribing"), but drug companies are not allowed to market drugs for unapproved uses. Many drug companies break this rule, but Lilly broke it with gusto. “The company made hundreds of millions of dollars by trying to convince health care providers that Zyprexa was safe for unapproved uses," said Laurie Magid, acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania where the case was prosecuted. Magid said that Lilly was responsible for "putting thousands and thousands of patients at risk."
One marketing effort consisted of the Lilly sales force urging geriatricians to use Zyprexa to sedate unruly nursing home and assisted-living facilities patients. Lilly sales reps distributed a study claiming that elderly patients taking Zyprexa required fewer skilled nursing staff hours than were necessary for patients taking competing medications. Magid stated that Lilly sales reps were "trained to use the slogan five at five , meaning five milligrams at 5 o'clock at night will keep these elderly patients quiet." Illegally marketing Zyprexa for elderly patients was especially troubling for prosecutors because Zyprexa increases the risks of heart failure and life-threatening infections such as pneumonia in older patients.