Original article no longer available
Posted on Mon, Nov. 03, 2003
By Chris Adams and Alison Young, KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Dr. Gary Murray, a cardiologist, was faced with a common medical dilemma: He had no idea what was wrong with his patient.
Milton Cole, a 71-year-old man in generally good health, was complaining of chest pains. A battery of cardiac tests couldn’t pinpoint the problem. To blunt the pain, Murray gave his patient a prescription and some free samples of the drug.
The drug Murray prescribed was Prozac, a popular antidepressant that isn’t approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treating chest pain. Murray later said he had no idea that experts had debated for years whether Prozac caused urges to commit suicide.
Thirteen days after that visit to the doctor, on June 28, 2001, Cole’s wife, Amby, found him hanging from a beam in a back room of their shop.
“This was a patient of mine, and I was trying to help him,” Murray recalled. “I’m completely upset. I’ll be that way forever.”
That a heart specialist even had free supplies of a drug that’s usually the province of psychiatrists says a lot about how drug marketing today encourages physicians to prescribe medications for unapproved, or off-label, uses.
By offering specialty drugs to nonspecialists, sending salesmen to doctors’ offices and medical conventions, and touting their drugs’ benefits on the slimmest of evidence, pharmaceutical companies have sent off-label retail sales soaring.
Off-label sales of the top-selling drugs Knight Ridder studied hit $12.9 billion in the past year, producing nearly a quarter of those drugs’ retail sales.
With an aging population, a shift to drug-based health care and the prospect of a massive government prescription-insurance plan, prescriptions for unapproved uses are only likely to accelerate.
Promoting this growth is a symbiotic relationship between physician and drug makers in which sales representatives routinely target doctors untrained in the basics of drug therapy and who have little time, inclination or independent information to assess a medication’s usefulness or its risks.
Consider this courtroom conversation involving a lawyer representing Schering-Plough Corp., the mammoth U.S. drug maker.
A quizzical U.S. District Judge Lawrence McKenna of New York asked whether doctors “in any significant number” really based their opinions about drugs on pitches from sales reps.
“Yes, your honor,” said Gregory Diskant, Schering-Plough’s outside attorney.
“That’s scary, isn’t it?” the judge asked.
“It is scary. It is scary, but it is true,” Diskant said. “You know what the truth is? (Sales calls) are the quickest, easiest way for the doctor to learn about the drug. It is a dangerous, largely unregulated phenomena in the wrong hands.”
Ease pain or do nothing?
The day Cole came in for his checkup, Murray had a drug closet stocked with dozens of medicines that cardiologists commonly prescribe, as well as some that general practitioners and other specialists use.
With little to go on beyond Cole’s complaints of chest pain, Murray said, he had a choice between doing nothing and attempting to ease his patient’s pain.
“I chose Prozac probably because I had samples of it,” he said in an interview. “I thought it was a pretty harmless thing to do.”
The FDA has approved Prozac to treat depression, panic, obsessive-compulsive disorder and an eating disorder, but not pain. Murray didn’t think Cole was depressed. The Brighton, Tenn., resident was upbeat, busy with friends and church, and preparing for a new grandchild and a new house.
Doctors have prescribed antidepressants off-label for years to manage chronic pain, and as far as Murray knew, Prozac didn’t have any serious side effects. He said he had never heard its use might cause suicide. Articles debating the issue were published primarily in psychiatric journals throughout the 1990s.
A Knight Ridder analysis of government data found that over the past decade, 40 percent of Prozac prescriptions were written by nonpsychiatrists. Over the past year, 500,000 Prozac prescriptions were for off-label uses.
Prozac didn’t help Cole’s chest pain.
Soon, he complained of feeling jittery. His fingers tingled; he became easily aggravated. Days later, he hanged himself.
Amby Cole recounted the day she found him, describing how she rubbed her dead husband’s neck where the rope had hurt him. “It was just horrible,” she said, her hands trembling.
She blames drug maker Eli Lilly for not warning that Prozac can cause suicide, and her lawyer, Andy Vickery of Houston, has accused Lilly of overpromoting Prozac to nonpsychiatrists. Lilly settled the case earlier this year. The amount is confidential.
Vickery said it was his third settlement with Lilly over Prozac-suicide cases and off-label uses. Patients in the other two cases were given Prozac to treat migraines and for Tourette’s syndrome, a neurological condition that produces uncontrollable tics.
Lilly officials said they had settled some lawsuits for economic reasons, but wouldn’t comment on specifics. A spokeswoman, Tarra Ryker, said Lilly “does not condone or encourage off-label use of any of our medications, including Prozac.”
Impossible to police
Federal law prohibits drug makers from advertising or promoting off-label drug uses, and since 1998 the FDA has cited companies nearly 70 times for improperly promoting their drugs that way, a review of its records shows.
Yet off-label promotions are commonplace, as was alleged in a recent whistle-blower lawsuit against a company that’s now part of Pfizer Inc. A former employee of the drug company said it employed a range of tactics to boost off-label sales of the epilepsy drug Neurontin. The widely reported case is pending.
Getting around FDA marketing rules isn’t difficult. The agency acknowledges that it’s impossible to police the millions of conversations between drug companies and doctors.
At the annual conference of the American Academy of Pain Management this summer at the Adam’s Mark Hotel in Denver, 75 makers of drugs, medical devices and dietary supplements staffed sales booths, beckoning doctors with trinkets, slick promotional brochures, medical-journal articles, even stopwatches.
One of the biggest booths was for Cephalon Inc., based outside Philadelphia. Two big signs pitched Gabitril, a drug approved only to treat seizures. Four sales representatives in blue blazers answered questions.
Why, one was asked, was an epilepsy drug being hawked at a conference for pain doctors? “Most of the anti-epileptics have multiple other uses,” replied Cephalon’s Janeen Morgan.
Cephalon relies more on off-label sales than other companies. A Wall Street analyst tou
ted “significant opportunities for off-label sales” as a reason to be bullish on the company, and Cephalon at times has aggressively marketed its drugs off-label; a 2002 letter from the FDA cited the company for making “misleading claims” about a “variety of unapproved uses” for another of its drugs, Provigil.
The company’s messages apparently got through to doctors.
In Maine, for example, state Medicaid officials in 2002 noticed a growing amount of Provigil use.
Although it was approved at the time only for patients with narcolepsy, a disorder associated with feelings of pronounced sleepiness, Medicaid officials were receiving claims for its use to treat multiple sclerosis fatigue, attention deficit disorder, depression and “miscellaneous fatigue.”
The Medicaid claims topped $1 million, with one doctor responsible for $370,000 of them, state records show.
From 2000 to 2003, 60 percent of Cephalon’s sales were of Gabitril or Provigil, two drugs for which the majority of the written prescriptions are off-label. According to the prescription data that Knight Ridder analyzed, 88 percent of Gabitril’s retail sales were off-label over the past year.
Cephalon has told the Securities and Exchange Commission that the “market for the approved indications of two of our three largest products is relatively small.”
Even as the company begins to study whether Gabitril is effective in treating pain, tens of thousands of prescriptions for that use were filled in the past year, Knight Ridder’s analysis showed.
Michael Fielder of Kansas City, Mo., said he’d taken Gabitril for the past 18 months to curb the pain of sickle cell anemia, a debilitating blood disorder. He got relief only after his doctor added morphine to the mix.
When asked for evidence that their drug may be useful for pain, Cephalon officials cited five studies – four of them with 10 or fewer patients.
Fielder, 27, still is taking Gabitril, because, he said, his doctor thinks it helps. Over the years, doctors have given him Neurontin, another epilepsy drug, and Paxil, the antidepressant, for pain. None of them worked well, he said.
“When they try out something new, sometimes I don’t think the doctors know if what they are using works,” Fielder said recently.
Marketing trumps studies
At first glance, the results of a clinical study of Evista, an Eli Lilly osteoporosis drug, looked promising. Among other things, researchers noticed slightly fewer breast cancers among women who took Evista versus those who were given sugar pills.
As baby boomers age, that could mean the makings of a blockbuster drug.
Unfortunately for Lilly, cancer experts didn’t think the numbers meant much.
On May 18, 1998, Eli Lilly convened a focus group of doctors who were attending the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting. Shown the Evista breast-cancer data, they responded that the study was too small, the time frame too short and the risk of patients having strokes too great.
Promoting the drug to prevent breast cancer would be “an egregious stretch,” one doctor said. It also was called an attempt to “cash in on a byproduct of the study.” A proper study to measure breast-cancer prevention “should last at least 10 years, preferably 20,” doctors said, according to the company’s meeting notes.
Even so, the cancer physicians feared that primary-care and women’s-health doctors would prescribe Evista for breast-cancer prevention anyway.
A month later, Lilly conducted a different survey, this one of 341 primary-care physicians and women’s-health doctors. The company tested various advertising messages about Evista, finding that “PCPs are more promising…indicate they will put more patients on Evista…and think the breast-cancer data is more compelling.”
Although the FDA had told the company it found “critical problems” with the Evista study and didn’t approve the drug for preventing breast cancer, according to FDA records, it allowed Lilly to make a minor change in the drug’s label. The company inserted three sentences that detailed the precise numbers of breast-cancer cases from the study as well as the following: “The effectiveness of (Evista) in reducing the risk of breast cancer has not been established.”
That was all Lilly needed to do. Company officials got the word to 1,000 sales representatives. In its plan “Maximizing the Breast Cancer Label Change,” it scripted answers to deal with expected concerns, including the “relatively small number of cases” in its study.
The new sales strategy irked one of Lilly’s competitors, now known as AstraZeneca PLC, the maker of tamoxifen, which the FDA has approved to prevent breast cancer.
AstraZeneca took the case to court, demanding that Lilly stop such practices and divulge the “call notes” its sales representatives wrote after visits to doctors. The case was settled, and the details are confidential. Evista someday may prove to be good for preventing breast cancer, although Lilly said it was at least two years away from completing the study that may allow it to apply to the FDA for such a use.
As for those call notes, some were illuminating.
“Told MD about the new indication of EV to prevent breast cancer,” one sales rep wrote in December 1998.
One physician told the sales rep he was “extremely excited about the breast data!! Said that if his wife were eligible, he would put her on Evista.”
“Sit down detail w/MD,” another note read. “Went through entire Evista message w/disclaimer at first to let him know I could not talk about stuff that was off label unless he asked questions first. It worked. He asked all about breast cancer.”