Tuesday, December 7, 2010

No Love Story for Pfizer

It was just 15 months ago that Pfizer paid $2.3 billion in the largest healthcare fraud settlement ever. It also happened to be the largest criminal fine of any kind ever paid. Moreover, this was the fourth time Pfizer had been punished for illegal marketing activities since 2002, although the previous settlements had been much smaller. Most of the Pfizer malfeasance occurred in the form of “off label recommendation,” a common practice by pharmaceutical salespeople in which doctors are encouraged (and oftentimes even bribed) to prescribe medication in cases where the drug is not approved by the FDA, and the activity is played out within the incestuous relationship that’s evolved over the years between physicians and drug reps. Unless you’ve actually worked as a drug rep or worked in a medical office, it’s almost impossible to understand how a vendor-customer relationship can become so devious and dysfunctional.

I’m happy to report that, as of this week, the average person now has a voyeuristic window into this shadow world of back-scratching drug promotion. Just when Pfizer was comfortable knowing that the general public had forgotten about the $2.3 billion fine, Pfizer now has to watch its marketing machine pictured for all the world to see on the giant screen in the nearest multiplex. “Love and Other Drugs” is the title of a surprisingly good chick flick which opened in movie theaters this week, and the love story is played within the context of the world of medicine and big pharma (Pfizer), depicting pharmaceutical industry shenanigans with such uncanny accuracy that at times it almost informs the viewer like a documentary.

In a massive irony of coincidental timing, Pfizer CEO, Jeff Kindler, “resigned” (winky winky) this week to spend time with his family. The fact is, I don’t see how he tolerated the job at the top of Pfizer as long as he did. It was only twelve years ago that Pfizer, under the brilliant stewardship of Bill Steere, was voted by Fortune Magazine as the most respected corporation in America. Not only was Pfizer the best in both science and ethical marketing, but it was the darling of Wall Street, earning legitimate billions for its investors. It’s tantalizing to speculate what might have happened if Jeff Kindler had followed Bill Steere twelve years ago when Pfizer stock was at $48 and the shares were splitting every two years. Such was not the case, however. Kindler came in after eight years of Hank McKinnell, and by then the damage had been done. If you wonder about Pfizer stock, its price— just like the age of Peggy Sue— will forever be under 21.

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