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How Big Pharma and Dr. Drew Made a Fortune Deceiving America

Aggressive marketing and paid promotion by doctors like Drew Pinsky obscure medication risks and can lead to human tragedy.

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By now you’ve likely heard that drug maker GlaxoSmithKline must shell out $3 billion for the fraudulent sale and marketing of drugs including the popular antidepressant Wellbutrin (also sold as the smoking cessation drug Zyban). In the Big Bertha of healthcare fraud settlements, the British pharmaceutical giant has admitted to playing fast and loose in its branding of Wellbutrin and marketing it for uses not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Wellburtin (generic name: bupropion) has been approved to treat depression, and many claim to have been helped by it. As Zyban it has been deemed useful as an anti-smoking drug. It is not illegal for a doctor to prescribe a drug for off-label uses. But it is certainly illegal for a company to go around marketing a drug for such purposes. Department of Justice documents show that Glaxo marketed Wellubtrin for off-label use to treat a wide range of conditions, including anxiety, biopolar disorder, obesity, sexual dysfunction, weight loss, and more, despite the fact that it was not approved to treat any of them and lacked appropriate research findings to justify those uses. Consumer Reports notes that “Wellbutrin was even promoted to treat bulimia and alcohol withdrawal, two treatments that the label specifically warns against.”

Glaxo continued its marketing-on-steroids despite warnings about possible safety risks from the FDA. A favorite tactic was to lure doctors with anything from free spa treatments to outright bribes to get on board with campaigns.

Dr. Drew Pinsky, the host of TV shows including “Lifechangers” and “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew,” was one of the doctors who threw medical ethics to the wind, hauling in $275,000 in March and April 1999 to push Wellbutrin as an antidepressant that was different from the others in not killing sex drive. The federal complaint says that Glaxo’s PR firm Cooney Waters “hired Dr. Drew Pinsky from MTV and Loveline as a spokesperson to deliver messages about WBSR [Wellbutrin] in settings where it did not appear that Dr. Pinsky was speaking for WBSR.”

Recently unsealed court records reveal that Pinsky claimed on his “Loveline” radio show that the active substance in Wellbutrin “could explain a woman suddenly having 60 orgasms in one night.” Really!

The Daily Beast reports that Paul Thacker, a former staffer for Senator Charles Grassley who participated in the lawmaker’s investigation into Glaxo and later worked for the Project on Government Oversight, said that like many, he grew up listening to Dr. Drew’s advice: “Dr. Drew was how kids in college in California learned about sex, drugs and mental-health issues.”

His abuse of the public trust should shame Pinsky forever, but what about the health and safety of all those people who were listening to his show?

You’d be hard-pressed to find a person who doesn’t want to be skinny, happy and have great sex. Which is why Glaxo put together a marketing campaign in 1999 called – incredibly -- “Operation Hustle.” The DOJ complaint reveals that this was Glaxo’s full-court-press to market Wellbutrin as the “happy, horny, skinny pill.”

The FDA never said that Wellbutrin should be used for weight loss or as a libido booster. But let’s take a closer look at what the FDA does say about the drug Pinsky was touting as the Orgasmatron. Warnings issued in 2009 for bupropion point to a dark side of the medication that is not widely known. (For a complete list of possible side effects, you’ll want to peruse the FDA Web site.)

-All patients being treated with bupropion for smoking cessation treatment should be observed for neuropsychiatric symptoms including changes in behavior, hostility, agitation, depressed mood, and suicide-related events, including ideation, behavior, and attempted suicide.