Giant GSK Settlement Provides Reminder of the Pervasiveness of Stealth Marketing

The latest  and biggest legal settlement involving health care to hit the news, that of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and the US government, has many familiar elements. As summarized by the New York Times,
In the largest settlement involving a pharmaceutical company, the British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline agreed to plead guilty to criminal charges and pay $3 billion in fines for promoting its best-selling antidepressants for unapproved uses and failing to report safety data about a top diabetes drug, federal prosecutors announced Monday. The agreement also includes civil penalties for improper marketing of a half-dozen other drugs.

As was the case for nearly every other legal settlement we have discussed,
No individuals have been charged in any of these cases.
Thus, how well even such a large settlement will deter future wrong-doing is not clear.

Nonetheless, the documents released with it provide good documentation about how pervasive systematic, deceptive stealth marketing campaigns have become in health care. 

In particular, the official "complaint" filed by the US Department of Justice emphasized all these elements in the stealth marketing of paroxetine (Paxil, Seroxat in the UK) to adolescents.

Manipulation of Clinical Research

We have frequently discussed how health care corporations, particularly pharmaceutical, biotechnology and device companies, now sponsor  the majority of clinical research.  Their control of the design, implementation, analysis and dissemination of clinical research allows manipulation that increases the likelihood that the results will be favorable to their vested interests, usually the products and services they sell. 

We have previously discussed the manipulation of Study 329 to promote the marketing of Paxil (look here and here).  However, the US DOJ document makes these concerns more official.  It included:

Manipulation of Study Endpoints

Study 329 was a randomized controlled trial of Paxil vs imipramine vs placebo for depression in adolescents. The two primary endpoints pre-specified to the US Food and Drug Administration were "the degree to which a patient's Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression ('HAM-D') total score changed from baseline"; and "the patient's 'response' to medication, as defined as (a) a 50% or greater reduction in the patient's HAMD-D score, or (b) a HAM-D score of less than or equal to 8." However, initial analysis by GSK failed to show that Paxil improved either of these two end-points. The company concluded "it would be commercially unacceptable to include a statement that efficacy had not been demonstrated, as this would undermine the profile of [Paxil]."

So the analysis emphasized secondary outcomes, the "Study 329 investigators later added several additional efficacy measures not specified in the protocol. Paxil separate statistically from placebo on certain of these measures." Adding numerous post-hoc measures increased the likelihood of finding a difference on at least one due to chance alone.

Manipulation of Data

Initial analysis of the data suggested that patients given Paxil experienced 11 serious adverse events, including five that appeared related to suicidal ideation or action. When the FDA later reexamined the data, "upon closer examination the number of possible suicide-related events among the Study 329 Paxil patients increased beyond the five patients GSK described in the JACAAP article as having 'emotional lability.' While collecting saftey information for the FDA, GSK admitted that there were four more possible suicide-related events among Paxil patients in Study 329. In addition the FDA later identified yet another possible suicide-related event in the Study 329 Paxil patients, which was also not among the 11 serious advents listed in the JAACAP article. Thus, altogether, 10 of the 93 Paxil patients in Study 329 experienced a possible suicidal event, compared to one in 87 patients on placebo. This is a fundamentally different picture of Paxil's pediatric safety profile than the one painted by the JAACAP article...." 

Manipulation of Dissemination

The report describing the results of Study 329 (Keller MB, Ryan ND, Strober M et al.  Efficacy of paroxetine in the treatment of adolescent major depression: a randomized controlled trial.  J Am Acad Child Adolescent Psychiatry 2001; 40: 762-772.  Link here. ) was written under the control of GSK. "In April 1998, GSK hired Scientific Therapeutics Information, Inc (STI) to prepare a journal article about Study 329. GSK worked closely with STI on the article by providing a draft clinical report to 'serve as a template for the proposed publication.'"

The published report of Study 329 "mischaracterized the results." "Although the ... article identified the study's two primary endpoints in the abstract, the article did not explicitly state that Paxil failed to show superiority to placebo on either of the primary efficacy measures." Also, "the article did not explicitly identify the two protocol-specified primary outcome measures - or that Paxil failed to show superiority to placebo on these two measures. Instead the article claimed that there were eight efficacy measures and that Paxil was statistically superior to placebo on four of them." In addition, "while the article listed the five protocol-defined secondary endpoints, the text of the article omitted any discussion regarding three of the secondary measures on which Paxil failed to statistically demonstrate its superiority to placebo and instead focused on the five secondary measures that GSK added belatedly and never incorporated into the Study 329 protocol. The article claimed that these finve secondary measures had been identified 'a priori,' therefore incorrectly suggesting that all secondary endpoints had been part of the original study protocol." In other words, the final published articles contained multiple outright falsehoods about the drug's efficacy that exaggerated that efficacy.

Furthermore, initial analysis showed that patients given Paxil had more serious adverse events than others. An initial draft of the study article stated, "serious adverse events occurred in 11 patients in the paroxetine group, 5 in the imipramine group, and 2 in the placebo group." These included "headache during down-titration(1 patient), and various psychiatric events (10 patients): worsening depression (2); emotional lability (e.g., suicidal ideation/ gestures, overdoses), (5); conduct problems or hostility (e.g., aggressiveness, behavioral disturbance in school) (2); and mania (1)." As noted above, the number of suicide related events was actually double that noted in this draft as "emotional lability."  However, the published version of the report "falsely state[d] that only one of the 11 serious adverse events in Paxil patients was considered related to treatment...."  Nor did it mention the true number of events related to suicidal ideation or action.

The article only "listed at most five possibly suicidal events among Paxil patients, brushed those off as unrelated to Paxil, and conclude that treating children with Paxil was safe."

Later, GSK marketing materials described the results of the study thus,
This 'cutting-edge,' landmark study is the first to compare efficacy of an SSRI and a TCA with placebo in the treatment of major depression in adolescents. Paxil demonstrates REMARKABLE Efficacy and Safety in the treatment of adolescent depression."
Thus the conrol exerted by GSK over the published article, despite its apparent academic authorship, enabled it to promote a drug that was not efficacious and had major adverse events as remarkably safe and effective, a totally deceptive result that would mislead any health care professional who used the article to guide clinical practice. 

Suppression of Clinical Research

GSK sponsored two other studies of Paxil in pediatric populations, Studies 377 and 701. As stated in the Department of Justice's Criminal Complaint against GSK,
GSK Did Not Publicize the Results of Studies 377 and 701
43. GSK learned the results of Study 377 in 1998 and the results of Study 701 in 2001. Paxil failed to demonstrate efficacy on any of the endpoints of either study.
44. GSK did not hire a contractor to help write medical articles about the results of Studies 377 and 701, as it had with Study 329.
45. GSK did not inform its sales representatives about the results of Studies 377 and 701.
Thus, GSK managed to conceal the fact that the majority of the studies it sponsored about Paxil used for adolescent patients showed no evidence that the drug worked, again seriously distorting the evidence-base on which clinicians made decisions, and doubtless leading to the use of a dangerous, ineffective drug by numerous vulnerable patients.

Bribing Physicians to Prescribe

GSK's sales representative reflected in their call notes their use of money, gifts, entertainment and other kickbacks to induct doctors to prescribe GSK drugs....

One really creative way to pay physicians to be exposed to marketing:
For example, in or about 2000 or 2001, GSK used 'Reprint Mastery Training Programs' or 'RMTS' to further promote drugs by purporting to pay physicians to train sales representative to review reprints of studies. Although the training was purportedly for the representatives, in fact, the sales force was already familiar with the materials. GSK typically paid physicians $250 to $500 to review the reprints.
Thus GSK simply paid physicians to use its drug, a practice characterized as kickbacks in the official complaint.  An article in the Guardian noted that the US Attorney involved in the case put it even more bluntly,
The sales force bribed physicians to prescribe GSK products using every imaginable form of high-priced entertainment, from Hawaiian vacations [and] paying doctors millions of dollars to go on speaking tours, to tickets to Madonna concerts.

Use of Key Opinion Leaders as Disguised Marketers

GSK also created a group of national 'key opinion leaders' ('KOLs') who were paid generous consulting fees. GSK selected many of these physicians based on their prescribing habits and influence within the community and used the speaker fees paid to these physicians to induce and reward prescribing of GSK's products. GSK used these individual to communicate marketing messages focused on the drug's marketing campaigns at the time, including off-label uses. Some physicians on GSK's speaker's board have been paid more than a million dollars for speaking on behalf of the company and recommending its drugs.

Thus key opinion leaders were paid specifically to market drugs, and as a reward, a bribe for prescribing drugs.

Consulting Fees as Kickbacks

In general,
In order to induce physicians to prescribe and recommend its drugs, GSK paid kickbacks to health professionals in various forms, including speaking or consulting fees, travel, entertainment, gifts, grants, and sham advisory boards, training,....

In particular,
During 2000 and 2001 at least, GSK also utilized events termed 'advisory boards' or consultant meetings and forums to disseminate its promotional message. Although these boards were purportedly composed of 'thought leaders' for the purpose of obtaining advice from the physicians, in fact, the 'advisory boards' were little more than promotional events coupled with financial inducement to prescribing and influential physicians.

GSK typically paid the physician between $250 and $750 to attend each local 'advisory' meeting. The payments did not reflect the value of services. The physician was not required to do anything but show up. GSK had no legitimate business reason to hire thousands of 'advisors' to 'consult' with the company about a single drug.

Manipulation of Continuing Medical Education

GSK also used so-called CME and CME Express programs and other sham training for marketing purposes, and to promote off-labe uses for the GSK prescription drugs.

These CME programs purported to be independent eduaction free of company influence, but in fact functioned as GSK promotional programs disguised as medical education. GSK maintained control and influence over the purportedly independent CME programs through speaker selection, and influence over content and audience, among other things. Although third party vendors were usually also involved, they served only as artificial 'firewalls' that did not insulate the program from GSK's influence.


The legal documentation of the GSK settlement demonstrated how one drug company used an integrated, systematic campaign incorporating deception and bribery to sell drugs. Its elements included manipulation and suppression of the clinical research it sponsored, paying key opinion leaders to be disguised drug marketers, outright payments to physicians to prescribe drugs, and manipulation, again using payments to physicians, of supposedly independent continuing medical education. 

Note that while I summarized the elements of the stealth marketing campaign to sell Paxil, particularly for use in pediatric patients, the US government complaint also documents similar activities used to sell other drugs.  Furthermore, other stealth marketing campaigns have come to light through legal action, and many other instances of manipulation and suppression of clinical research, use of KOLs as disguised marketers, kickbacks and bribes, and manipulation of CME have been documented.

This means that any claims that:
- commercially sponsored clinical research provides clear, unbiased data that should drive clinical decisions
- health care professionals and academics paid as consultants by commercial health care firms are not influenced by these payments, and can provide clear, unbiased opinions
- commercially sponsored medical education provides clear, unbiased teaching
unfortunately must be viewed with extreme skepticism. This is particularly unfortunate given that most clinical research is now supported by commercial sponsors, and the majority of influential academics in medicine get some form of payments from the health care industry (look here).

Of course, there are some physicians who consult for commercial firms who actually provide clinical or scientific advice or assistance, and some commercially sponsored activities are honest. But we must wonder what garden path all those advocates for increasing industry "collaboration" to promote "innovation," and who regard conflicts of interest as "inevitable" and "manageable" are taking us down (e.g., look here and here).

Although the current settlement will require a huge payment, as I have said many times before (as early as 2008, here), do not expect such settlements to deter future bad behavior like that listed above.  The cost of the settlement will actually be spread among all company shareholders, all company employees, and likely patients and taxpayers.  However, the settlement will entail no specific negative consequences to the people who authorized, directed, or implemented the bad behavior.  In particular, executives whose remuneration was swollen by proceeds from the sales of affected drugs, and the health care professionals who willingly accepted what the US Attorney called bribes will not pay any sort of penalty.  The bad behavior listed above was doubtless personally very profitable for some people.  Unless people who indulge in such behavior face the possibility of penalties worse than their expected gains, expect such bad behavior to continue.

In fact, as the New York Times reported,
critics argue that even large fines are not enough to deter drug companies from unlawful behavior. Only when prosecutors single out individual executives for punishment, they say, will practices begin to change.

'What we’re learning is that money doesn’t deter corporate malfeasance,' said Eliot Spitzer, who, as New York’s attorney general, sued GlaxoSmithKline in 2004 over similar accusations involving Paxil. 'The only thing that will work in my view is C.E.O.’s and officials being forced to resign and individual culpability being enforced.'

True health care reform would strive to eliminate important conflicts of interest affecting clinical research and medical education.  Specifically, it would prevent corporations that sell health care products or services from controlling clinical research meant to evaluate these products or services.  It would seek to eliminate serious conflicts of interest affecting health care professionals.  Finally, it would prevent vested interests from controlling medical education.  Not that I expect any such reform in the near future, it would be too threatening to those who have personally benefited from the current system.

Hat tip to Dr Howard Brody whose Hooked: Ethics, Medicine and Pharma blog scooped me on the details of the settlement relevant to study 329.

ADDENDUM (11 July, 2012) - see also this post on the 1BoringOldMan blog.
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