January 12, 2009. By Evelyn Pringle
Washington, DC:: Most doctors who attended conferences, medical seminars and other events throughout the 1990s were not aware that the so-called "key opinion leaders" encouraging them to prescribe the new generation of antidepressants for everything under the sun, including to children as young as infants, were nothing more than highly paid drug pushers for Big Pharma.
Dr Daniel Casey was a major player in the SSRI drug-push and useful in many ways to the companies promoting the drugs. He was the chairman of the very first FDA advisory committee that met in 1991, to decide whether a warning about the increased risk of suicide should be added to the label of Prozac, the first SSRI approved in the US, and voted it down. He was also the chairman of the advisory panel that voted to approve Zoloft for Pfizer later that same year.
Bob Sorenson was a sales representative for Pfizer for 21 years. He moved to Oregon shortly before Zoloft was approved. During the first week at his new location, Pfizer’s chief of marketing at the time told him he needed to start calling on a doctor by the name of Dr Daniel Casey at the V.A. in Portland because he was very important to the company.
Dr Casey worked at the V.A., but never treated patients for depression, Mr Sorenson says. "His expertise [was] psychotropic drugs and experimentation."
The chief of marketing said he was interested in finding out what Dr Casey thought of the company's new drug, Zoloft. The company tried to call on him that day, but Dr Casey was not in. Mr Sorenson called on him later in the week and learned that Dr Casey was the lead investigator on Zoloft, which was up for approval by the FDA advisory committee Dr Casey chaired.
"He said I shouldn't be there, but I did ask how it looks for the drug and he said very well," Mr Sorenson recalls.
Dr Casey ended up making a ton of money from Zoloft. "He told me personally one time that he made enough from Pfizer in one year to purchase two cars," Mr Sorenson reports.
Dr Casey became a member of Pfizer's Advisory Board for Zoloft, which meant "all expense paid trips," including honorariums, to anywhere Pfizer wanted him to advise, at any location in the world, Mr Sorenson explains.
"Many speakers were sought out that would only give lectures that put Zoloft in a positive light," he notes, "there was no room for a balanced lecture."
"Dr Casey later became one of the most sought after speakers for the Pfizer promotion of Zoloft," he says, "the reps loved him because of his positioning of Zoloft."
Mr Sorenson was often told to take information to speakers, "including Dr Casey, to have them add the information to their lectures," he reports. "I look back at it now and see how wrong it was," he states.
"As far as the suicide issue," Mr Sorenson says, "the standard company line was that parents and doctors should be monitoring these kids because after being on Zoloft they finally feel good enough that they can carry out their suicide tendencies."
"Another tactic was to blame Paxil and Effexor," he recalls, "it was those drugs that caused suicidal tendencies, not Zoloft."
"Finally," he notes, "the statement was made that if they didn't take Zoloft, they probably would have committed suicide anyway."
Sales reps would practice and rehearse these statements at sales meetings to be able to respond to concerns or objections raised by Doctors about Zoloft’s relationship to suicidality, he says. "There would be contests as to who could detail the drug the best with objections," he recalls.
Pfizer was able to get rid of employees and still keep them quiet, he says, by offering severance packages of up to a year's salary, while forcing them to sign a confidentiality agreement, in which they promised not to sue, or speak adversely about Pfizer, as part of the deal.
Many people were so surprised at being terminated that they felt forced to sign because Pfizer kept the pressure on, he explains. They feared they wouldn’t find another job before financial problems set in, but regretted signing the agreement later, he says.
Mr Sorenson did not sign an agreement when he was fired. His young son had developed cancer, but Pfizer expected him to continue to attend out-of-town meetings and refused to believe that his son was terminally ill, he recalls. After 20 years with the company, Mr Sorenson was let go when he insisted that he needed to remain near his dying son and distraught wife. The Sorenson's son passed away on April 1, 2005.
Evelyn Pringle is a columnist for Scoop Independent News and an investigative journalist focused on exposing corruption in government and corporate America.
(Written as part of the SSRI Litigation Round-Up, Sponsored by Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman’s Pharmaceutical Litigation Department)
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