Marco Torres | Prevent Disease
GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) said this week it will respond to pressure to stop paying doctors to promote its products through speaking engagements and end linking compensation for its sales representatives to the number of prescriptions doctors write. The move comes amid a major bribery investigation in China.
It also plans to stop payments to healthcare professionals for attendance at medical conferences by the start of 2016.
Authorities say a major bribery investigation in China accused Britain's largest drug maker of corrupt payments to doctors and officials to boost its drug sales.
In 2012, GSK was fined $3 billion and plead guilty to federal charges to resolve a slew of criminal and civil issues stemming from its use of kickbacks, misbranding and other misconduct to market drugs such as Paxil, Wellbutrin and Advair.
The agreement was the largest health care fraud settlement in history, spanning nearly every state, according to the Justice Department. It’s was also the largest payment ever by a drug company.
The company illegally marketed depression drug Paxil to children and teens, even sponsoring dinners and spa programs in the drug’s name, prosecutors said.
Glaxo also used sham advisory boards and speakers at lavish resorts to promote depression drug Wellbutrin as an option for weight loss and a remedy for sexual dysfunction and substance addiction, according to the government. Customers were urged to use higher-than-approved dosages, the government said.
Medical Journals Corrupt
GSK as well as the largest pharmaceutical companies have been paying off the researchers of medical studies for decades.
Richard Smith, the ex-editor of the British Medical Journal (BMJ), publicly criticized his former publication, saying the BMJ was too dependent on advertising revenue to be considered impartial. Smith estimates that between two-thirds to three-quarters of the trials published in major journals -- Annals of Internal Medicine, Journal of the American Medical Association, Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine -- are funded by the industry, while about one-third of the trials published in the BMJ are thus funded.
He further adds that trials are so valuable to drug companies that they will often spend upwards of $1 million in reprint costs (which are additional sources of major revenues for medical journals). Consumers trust medical journals to be the impartial and "true" source of information concerning a prescription drug, but few are privy to what is truly going on behind the scenes at both drug trials and medical journals.
Scientists who conduct drug trials may be hard-pressed to stay impartial when the manufacturers so often pay them for lectures and consultations, or when they are conducting research that has been funded by the company. In addition, as stated by doctors Mark Hyman and Mark Liponis in Ultraprevention, since drug companies are so reliant on the word of doctors, they often visit doctors' offices to hand out free samples, take the staff out to lunch, offer free gifts -- including toys for kids, seminars at expensive restaurants and junkets to the Caribbean islands -- and frequently sponsor continuing education for doctors.
Bribery Coming To An End
GSK is not the only culprit. Pfizer, Novartis, Merck, Eli Lilly and Sanofi have all been heavily criticized and accused of initiating scandals in medical research.
"It's all coming to an end," says Dr. Robin Herring. "There is no longer a place for corrupting the health of this country and drug companies are finally being exposed for this shady practice," she stated.
Opponents of the perceived corruption are beginning to offer many solutions. A change may be in the cards, and as Richard Gerber, MD, notes, the number of patients seeking alternative medical answers to their problems is becoming too large for mainstream medical media to ignore. Gerber says that some medical journals are even publishing articles that explore the nature of these "unorthodox" treatments and discuss why patients are seeking alternative health care.
GSK's admission will surely not be the last for those at the top of big pharma's food chain.
Marco Torres is a research specialist, writer and consumer advocate for healthy lifestyles. He holds degrees in Public Health and Environmental Science and is a professional speaker on topics such as disease prevention, environmental toxins and health policy.