The pharmaceutical industry, not unlike all big business during the disastrous Bush Administration, was virtually unregulated. Bush and his cronies managed to accomplish this feat by destabilizing the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and essentially hamstringing any regulatory authority that it had. Not surprisingly, many pharmaceutical companies saw an opportunity to increase their bottom lines by engaging in off label marketing of many of their approved drugs—a practice clearly forbidden by the agency.
Despite the fact that off label marketing is illegal, many big pharma companies knowingly and willfully engaged in the practice. Luckily, the Obama administration has reinvigorated and restored the regulatory powers at the agency and FDA is now aggressively investigating and punishing companies that had promoted off-label use of their products over the last decade.
The New York Times today reported that Novartis joins a growing list of pharmaceutical companies that have settled government investigations into health care fraud in the last few years, including Pfizer, which paid $2.3 billion; Eli Lilly, $1.4 billion; Allergan, $600 million; AstraZeneca, $520 million; Bristol-Myers Squibb, $515 million; and Forest Laboratories, $313 million. Pfizer, Lilly, Allergan and Forest pleaded guilty to crimes in the cases. The company was fined $422 million settle criminal and civil investigations into the marketing of the antiseizure medicine Trileptal and five other drugs.
According to the article, the five other drugs involved in the civil settlement are Diovan, a hypertension drug that is the company’s top-selling product, at $6 billion last year; Sandostatin, a drug to treat a growth hormone disorder that had worldwide sales of $1.2 billion last year; Exforge, a hypertension drug that sold $671 million; Tekturna, a blood pressure medicine that sold $290 million; and Zelnorm, a medicine for irritable bowel syndrome and constipation that was later withdrawn from the United States market.
It is important to make a distinction between the practices of off-label drug use and off label marketing. As many of you may know, licensed US physicians are allowed to prescribe any FDA-approved drugs if they believe that their use will benefit patients. This is off-label drug use. However, in contrast, it is illegal for companies to actively promote or market approved drugs for therapeutic indications for which they have not received regulatory approval. This is off-label marketing and a strategy that has been used by companies to increase sales of approved products without having to spend money on expensive clinical trials that are required to prove safety and efficacy for a new drug to gain regulatory approval. While this may be a backdoor strategy for companies to boost product sales, it clearly puts patients at risk because the actual safety and efficacy for the indications has not been adequately tested and proven.
Many drug makers have been critical of FDA’s increase scrutiny of drug safety and have argued that it has negatively impacted the regulatory approval rates of new experimental medicines. While this may be troubling to many pharmaceutical executives, the FDA was created to insure that all approved drugs are safe and effective and the risk to Americans who use them is minimal. In other words, the agency is simply doing its job—something it was prevented from doing for the past eight years!
Until next time,
Good Luck and Good Job Hunting!!!!