Employee who lifted the lid on Pfizer's
drug marketing scam gets £15m payout
By Stephen Foley
When David Franklin left his research post at the prestigious Harvard Medical School for a job in the private sector, he believed he was being hired to explain to doctors the science behind his new company's innovative drugs.
But within months he had become a pawn in a scheme to jack up drug sales by lying to doctors about their effects, and his decision to blow the whistle plunged him into a nightmarish seven-year legal fight against the biggest pharmaceuticals companies in the world.
Now Dr Franklin has emerged victorious - and very, very rich. He has walked away with a $26.6m (£15.1m) reward under the United States' generous whistleblowing legislation - his cut of a $430m legal settlement agreed this week by Pfizer, the makers of Viagra. For almost four years, while the case against his former employer was being assembled, he became reclusive, and feared his career lay in tatters. "This has been the most disruptive thing that could ever take place in someone's life," he told reporters.
It was in 1996 that the Rhode Island-born scientist joined Warner-Lambert, already one of the world's largest drug companies. It was taken over by Pfizer, the biggest, in 2000. He was not a sales rep, but held a more respected "medical liaison" position, being an employee with a strong scientific pedigree of whom sceptical doctors could ask detailed questions. Within four months, however, it was abundantly clear that sales were his bosses' only real concern.
Warner-Lambert was heavily promoting a drug called Neurontin, which had been approved as a treatment for epileptic seizures. But it wasn't stopping its marketing efforts with the drug's approved use. Instead, Dr Franklin was expected to argue for the product's use as a treatment for manic depression, attention deficits, even migraines and alcohol withdrawal.
When Dr Franklin found evidence of side-effects in some children he was ordered not to tell doctors. "I was the individual paid to lie to doctors," he said. "I got involved in something I didn't realise was wrong at first." He collected evidence, including documents and tape-recordings of voicemails, and took them to lawyers in Boston, who launched the massive claims for fraud that led to this week's settlement.
Dr Franklin's efforts have thrown the spotlight once again on the dubious marketing practices of the giant pharmaceuticals companies. To increase sales or Neurontin, Warner-Lambert paid doctors cash, and lavished expenses on them during "boondoggle weekends", drug conferences in plush hotels. Trips to the Olympics and baseball games provided an opportunity to suggest potential new "off-label", or unapproved, uses for Neurontin.
"Physicians who prescribed Neurontin were rewarded with invitations to events or lavish resorts," says Tom Greene, of Greene & Hoffman, Dr Franklin's lawyers. "The more he saw of it, the more he felt it was unethical, and then he thought it was illegal. A doctor can write a prescription for an unapproved use, but a company cannot market it."
By the end of 1996, non-epilepsy conditions made up 78 per cent of Neurontin's $1.3bn sales. Even today, Neurontin is still only approved for epileptic seizures and some forms of neuralgia.
The company said in a statement: "Pfizer is committed to compliance with all healthcare laws and regulatory requirements and to high ethical standards in all aspects of its business practice."
Pfizer is paying a $240m criminal fine and $152m to State and Federal healthcare programmes, with other pay-outs on top and legal costs still to be settled. The fine is the second-largest given in the industry.
But it is the $26.6m payment to Dr Franklin that could really help to change the culture of the pharmaceuticals industry, because it might encourage further whistleblowers to come forward. Already, a former executive who revealed an alleged fraud in the marketing by AstraZeneca of a prostate cancer drug in the US is to receive $47.5m for his role in incriminating the British company.
And in February, GlaxoSmithKline, the UK's biggest drug group, said that the US Attorney's office in Colorado was investigating the way it marketed some of its most lucrative drugs in the state, after a whistleblower came forward.
Despite his new wealth, however, Dr Franklin warns that whistleblowing is not for everyone. "It takes real staying power," he says.