That pesky Madonna and her drug peddling…

First day of the new blog and I found a rather interesting and wholly relevant article in this mornings free Metro, regarding the previous unsavory behavior of pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline. Obviously, they decided that the banks were stealing all of the morally reprehensible spotlight and wanted to throw their lab coat into the pot for most publicly hated international corporation.

Here is a poor quality photo of the article in question:

Shall we go for generic laboratory picture #12? Nah. Madonna’s all people are going to care about.

The reason I started this blog is due to the encouragement I recieved through a Science Communication Workshop (it’s also somrthing I’ve wanted to try for a while), within which we were shown an Ipsos MORI poll on which were the most trusted professions. You can find the link here.

As you can see, doctors (M.D) come out on top as the single most trusted profession, while MPs are bathing in the shallow end of the dream pool with the journalists (shock! horror!). The general public might, in light of the case shown above, like to readjust their opinion on the trustworthiness of medical practitioners, who are far from above reproach and not immune to the cult of greed that seems to have pervaded almost every corner of our lives.

Pressure on doctors from big pharma for them to prescribe particular drugs is actually nothing new, it happens all the time (big pharma spends more on marketing than research which is a little annoying). The line that’s been crossed here is similar to that crossed by certain high ranking bankers. Taking bribes be it in the form of holidays, pheasant hunts and (of all things) Madonna concert tickets is repugnant.

Returning to the poll, “Scientists” (I love it when we’re all clubbed together) don’t come off too badly in the poll, although it doesn’t show the divide between academia and industry. Sadly, I can’t get hold of the exact information we were shown at the workshop, but suffice to say about 68% of the public trusted scientists in academia/universities compared to about 41% for the chemical industry scientists. The article above being a perfect illustration of why this is so.

The only thing going for GSK is that they pleaded guilty to the illegal practice, which is  known euphemistically as “off-label marketing”.

Just how dangerous was this practice exactly? How morally dubious are we talking about? Well one of the drugs GSK were bribing doctors to prescribe is Paroxetine (aka Aropax, Paxil, Seroxat and Sereupin) – which is drawn below.

Look! Some kind of organic compound! Pretty!

Paroxetine is a selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor (SSRI) type antidepressant which is widely used to treat major depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety, post traumatic stress and anxiety disorder in adults. GSK (at the time SmithKline Beecham) have been marketing it since 1992, although the patent ran out in 2003, so generic brands have now flooded the market.

You can read more about Paroxetine and SSRI‘s in general on Wikipedia, which has some pretty decent looking entries for both and covers a lot of the controversy that has occurred over the years (although it’s wikipedia, so pinch of salt territory time). Some interesting reading to be sure. Suffice to say GSK had been pushing doctors to give paroxetine to adolescents in whom the drug may increase the risk of suicidal tendencies. They have also in the past consistently marketed the drug as “not habit forming”, which it turns out is complete and utter baloney of the highest order.

GSK’s CEO Sir Andrew Witty (only knighted in the 2012 honours list for services to the economy and the UK pharmaceutical industry – it should be noted that he is not a chemist) gave the following statement on the matter:

“Today brings to resolution difficult, long-standing matters for GSK. Whilst these originate in a different era for the company, they cannot and will not be ignored. On behalf of GSK, I want to express our regret and reiterate that we have learnt from the mistakes that were made.

“We are deeply committed to doing everything we can to live up to and exceed the expectations of those we work with and serve. Since I became CEO, we have had a clear priority to ingrain a culture of putting patients first, acting transparently, respecting people inside and outside the organisation and displaying integrity in everything we do.

“In the US, we have taken action at all levels in the company. We have fundamentally changed our procedures for compliance, marketing and selling. When necessary, we have removed employees who have engaged in misconduct. In the last two years, we have reformed the basis on which we pay our sales representatives and we have enhanced our ability to ‘claw back’ remuneration of our senior management.

“We have a vital role to play in bringing innovative medicines to patients and we understand how important it is that our medicines are appropriately promoted to healthcare professionals and that we adhere to the standards rightly expected by the US Government.”

So I guess that’ll be that. It’s cost them a staggering £2 billion or  $3 billion (the biggest in US history for such a case) at a time when almost all big pharma are struggling to come to terms with the fast approaching patent cliff. “Sailing into troubled waters” doesn’t really cover it.

I love chemistry. I love responsible chemistry even more, so it saddens me a little that GSK thought this kind of behaviour was acceptable in the first place. Hopefully, this sort of thing will be stamped out in the long term and chemistry can continue to enhance and enrich people’s lives as it ought to.

Having now said all the serious stuff, I’d also like to point out the other reason I highlighted this article today and that is…that it’s some slightly sloppy journalism. I think the first rule of good journalism should be to check you’ve spelled your headline correctly. They probably should have stuck to the the official company abbreviation, GSK (which they do later with no problem). The second rule should be to get your mathematics correct. I’m not sure £637 billion goes into £2 billion with much in the way of change.

The third rule should be that, just because a celebrity is mentioned, doesn’t mean a picture of them is AT ALL relevant to the story. Why should it matter that doctors were bribed with Madonna concert tickets? What if it were Coldplay, Justin Bieber or Elton John? Would they have equally adorned this piece? I’m pretty sure most of these artists are not drug peddling fraudsters in their spare time.  Are we so obsessed by celebrity that the only way to sell any other news is to put one in every article?

Surely a generic picture of a laboratory, or GSK’s logo or some brightly coloured drug capsules would have been more appropriate? I just looked up “drugs” on google images and found a whole host of suitable images.…Oh hang on…I take it all back.

Look who I found! Turns out she’s entirely relevant.

The Metro’s logic clearly links back to Madonna’s recent album MDNA, which sounds suspiciously like MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine) or “Ecstasy”.

Journalists. Where were they in that “most trusted profession” poll again? Oh yes just above this guy:

David Cameron also turns up when you google image search for drugs. He took some at Eton, dontcha know?

-The Lab Coat Cowboy-